MCN Columnists
Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Getting Dragged to Hell

It’s funny, I wrote a whole diatribe just a few weeks ago about my issues with the movie-going experience and then I see a film that makes me realize what is so wonderful about seeing a certain type of film in theaters. Horror and comedy are the two best genres of films to see in a theater because of the collective experience of the audience, which enhances the pleasures of the film; when you’re scared, you help make others even more scared because the tension is palpable and you don’t realize that your gasps are audible.

Sometimes, though, when you see a film with a great audience, it can make the film seem a lot better and more entertaining than it actually was. It doesn’t make the experience any less worthwhile, but you have to be careful not to let that great experience color your perception of the film.

I brought two my most cinema-literate film geek buddies, Jack and Jonny, to an all-media screening of Drag Me to Hell, Sam Raimi’s long-awaited return to horror – or, at least, his return to his brand of horror. It was an almost unbearably hot NYC afternoon and the jam-packed theater provided no comfort, as the air conditioning was absent; it was, fittingly, hot as hell before the picture even started. Despite the oppressive heat, all I could see when I looked at the crowd – filled with critics like Glenn Kenny and a ton of regular folks – was smiles.

The film begins with a genuinely creepy scene involving a young boy being, you guessed it, dragged into the depths of hell. When the title card came up on the screen, the entire audience whooped and applauded, delighted in their own fear. After the credits, we are introduced to a pretty, young loan officer named Christine (Alison Lohman) and her fiancé Clay (Justin Long). Christine is competing with a slimy colleague for a promotion at the bank and despite being a seemingly sincere and good-hearted person, she turns down a decaying old gypsy woman’s extension. It’s not long afterwards that the old woman puts a curse on Christine that will, you guessed it, involve demons dragging her to hell.

I can’t pretend that this was anything resembling high art, but it is definitely Raimi doing hisEvil Dead II shtick. In many ways, Raimi has never really done straight horror, as it is almost always cut with a heavy dose of levity and campy humor. So what we have with Drag Me to Hell is a series of scenes that seem to switch off between horror and comedy and sometimes the scares hit and the jokes miss and sometimes its vice versa.

I can’t stress enough the importance of seeing this film with an audience. Raimi is clearly playing to the audience at many points during the film, inviting people watching the film to yell at the screen, with some moments so tense that having someone say “damn!” really helps to cut the tension in the room and allow a few burst of laughter. Raimi has such a good understanding of what makes horror such a wonderful genre, upping the tension and the suspense until the audience literally cannot take it anymore and then cutting it with a funny poster or a referential line. When we get scared in movies, after our hearts have stopped, we usually look around at one another and laugh, assuring ourselves and others around us that everything’s okay, that it’s just a movie. And we laugh, also, because we’re happy to feelsomething so physical and so instinctual as fear. We cannot help that we get scared, just as we cannot help our laughter once we realize that no harm has been done.

I had one of the most entertaining times I’ve had in a theater in a long time, feeling like I had bonded with the entire audience. Throughout the film, my buddy Jonny and I kept looking over at each other wide-eyed, as if to say, “this is nuts.” But, upon walking out of the theater, I turned to Jonny and asked him what he thought of the film and he shrugged, “it was decent.” It was so strange to see such a stark contrast in how he received the film as the images were coming at him, reacting to the film exactly the way Raimi wanted him to react; and then, out in the lobby, acting as if all those emotions and feelings weren’t real. And the thing is, I felt the same way.

If I had watched this film for the first time at home, even with the best sound system and a huge high-definition plasma, I think I would have been indifferent. Having that audience, sharing those sounds and sights, enhanced the quality of the picture like a baseball slugger taking performance-enhancing drugs. That visceral theater experience masked a lot of the flaws of the film that hit me as I was walking out of the theater because everything was moving so fast and so loudly, that I didn’t have time to catch my breath and think.

There’s a part in the film where a fly comes through Christine’s window as she is sleeping next to her fiancé. The fly buzzes around the room for a little bit and then it lands on top of us, right on the lens of the camera we are viewing the movie through. I immediately turned to my buddy Jonny and whispered, “Godard” and then carried on watching the rest of the film. And I think that moment of the film is indicative of the film as a whole. It’s an unnecessary bit that breaks down the fourth wall for no good reason, something Godard did often; but while I wasn’t a fan of the more experimental Godard films, I knew what his intentions were and I admired the way he was deconstructing cinema and the way an audience views a film, reminding us constantly that we are only watching a film. Raimi’s motivations are less clear because while, yes this is only a movie, why take that moment to remind us of it?

In Raimi’s earlier horror pictures, there are definitely references to other movies and many attempts at comedy, especially in Army of Darkness when Ash makes a direct reference toThe Day the Earth Stood Still. But, there’s two crucial differences there: 1) the world that Raimi has set up allows for there to be a greater deal of comedy and playing with conventions and 2) it isn’t a direct reference to the fact that there’s an audience there. The moment when Raimi shows his awareness of the audience, it is the equivalent of an actor in a theater performance doing an exaggerated wink at the members of the crowd. It makes us completely aware of the fact that the characters in this film are just fabrications and that what happens to them or doesn’t happen to them ultimately does not matter because it’s just a movie. And I would hope that that is not what Raimi was going for.

Having said all that, the first hour of the film is a constant thrill-ride, amped up by the absolutely incredible sound design and the fact that the film is just louder than most. I swear, it was almost as if Nigel Tufnel turned the knob up to eleven; when a door swings open or something crashes into a window, you can feel it in your bones. During that first hour, Raimi successfully straddles the line between scary and silly, with embalming fluid, saliva, and blood pouring out of mouths and noses in comically large amounts.

But then, about a half-hour before the end, there is an absurd séance scene that nearly derails the entire film. It is unnecessary and overlong and the only upshot seems to be a corny joke involving a goat. It’s strange because earlier in the film, Raimi deftly handles a similarly-themed scene at a dinner table and it works ten times better. After that, the ending is set in motion, but any halfway intelligent audience member will see the twist coming long before it happens. Raimi telegraphs the twist ending in the first fifteen minutes of the film, which is a shame because it’s a pretty cheeky ending.

Alison Lohman is excellent in the lead role, conveying the right amount of spunk and innocence in equal measures. Towards the end of the film, she yells a line to a corpse that had the entire audience whooping it up and it’s because Lohman is so damn likable that we realized that we really were rooting for her. Justin Long is less successful, playing the role of the fiancé exactly how you would expect Justin Long to play it, with faux self-deprecating smugness. The real standout, however, has to be Lorna Raver as the old gypsy woman; the makeup team did excellent work, of course, but Raver brings an intensity to the facial movements that really makes her one of the better horror villains of recent years.

In the context of recent horror films, Drag Me to Hell is a definite success and something that I would recommend to fans of Raimi’s work and horror fans in general. But, in the pantheon of great horror films, Drag Me to Hell isn’t really in the class of Raimi’s earlier work or Peter Jackson’s early work, let alone something as classic as The Shining or Repulsion. But Raimi’s ambitions are not that high with this film and I think it’s pretty much what he wanted it to be, which is an entertaining crowd-pleasing scare flick. So, based on what Raimi was trying to accomplish, it’s definitely a certain kind of achievement. And, considering what looks like a pretty weak summer for horror films, this might be the best we get for a while.

But, please, if you have an interest in the film, then please ignore my column about movie theaters from a few ago and see it in the biggest movie palace you can. You’ll be glad you had the experience because on the small screen, it would be just another horror flick.

Note: There’s been a lot of chatter on message boards about how Raimi has somehow “sold out” because the film is rated PG-13. Trust me when I say that this has no effect whatsoever on the quality of the film; I fail to see how the film could be appreciably better with the addition of buckets of blood or profanity. No amount of F-bombs or gore would make the film any better or worse.

– Noah Forrest
May 25, 2009
Noah Forrest is a 26-year-old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writers and do not neccessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon