29 May 2009

DRAG ME TO HELL (Dir. Sam Raimi, 2009, US) - Pleasures of the B-Movie

Alison Lohman as Christine Brown; the woman in peril or the final girl?

American film maker, Sam Raimi's calling card 'The Evil Dead' seemed to arrive at just the right time. Released in 1981, the American horror genre had been more or less been exhausted by the emergence of the slasher sub genre in the seventies. This was signalled by the release of John Carpenter's 'Halloween' in 1979 which summarised the incredible ingenuity that many of the American horror films had demonstrated, responding to the anxieties of the decade with great ideological intelligence. Raimi's ultra low budget do-it-yourself film making philosophy made the horror genre the perfect vehicle for making a debut, permitting him to do some really eccentric and crazy things with the camera. An independently financed film, 'The Evil Dead' borrowed many of the slasher horror conventions and turned them on their head through a form of outrageous parody. Raimi would go on to direct two more additions, producing what would become a cult trilogy. Though 'The Evil Dead' films would run into censorship problems regarding its graphic nature, Raimi's career benefited enormously from the home video boom and low budget horror films proved to be a lucrative genre for those who were quick to exploit the emergence of a new home video rental audience.

In the nineties, Raimi shifted his focus towards the mainstream, directing two notable genre films. 'The Quick and the Dead', a postmodern western with a feminist twist featuring then powerful Sharon Stone in the lead role of a vengeful gunslinger who locks horns with an on form Gene Hackman as an evil Sheriff titled 'Herod'. This was followed by what many consider to be his best film to date, 'A Simple Plan', starring Bill Pullman and Billy Bob Thornton. A beautifully shot and compelling take on the film noir genre (makes a worthy companion piece to the Coen's 1996 film 'Fargo' which also made exemplary use of the wintry landscape), 'A Simple Plan' was highly uncharacteristic of Raimi as a film maker. The film featured none of the disorientating camerawork or dark humour that had been a prominent signature of his previous films. Instead Raimi seemed to prove a point by adopting a very pared down approach, opting for a much more tighter focus on character and showing a reflective attitude towards the thematic value of the genre.

Director Sam Raimi on the set of his new film, 'Drag me to hell'.

Initially a James Cameron project, the first Spiderman film was the one that elevated Raimi into the ranks of the mainstream elite. Though he was a huge fan of the comic book, Raimi seemed like an unusual choice considering the moderate success he had enjoyed at the box office. On reflection, it was a risky proposition especially given the fact that most franchises today are rarely given over to film makers with relatively poor bankability. Yet such a move by Sony seemed to bring joy for the fans of the comic book, appeasing those voices on the Internet who were already predicting the negative outcome of a film which had yet to be made. Personally, I have never found the idea of Spiderman particularly appealing but all three films directed by Raimi have been a formidable force at the international box office. Working as a director for hire and successfully overseeing the launch of such an important franchise, Raimi was inevitability forced to compromise his authorial presence.

With the Spiderman films, Raimi was transformed into one of Hollywood's most bankable film makers. One could argue that Spiderman is such a powerful brand that the director is relatively unimportant to the creative process which relies primarily on the competitive marketing of a high concept. Nevertheless, the first two films were well reviewed by critics and make for competent examples of the comic book film genre. Raimi's return to the horror genre was also somewhat of an inevitability, considering the widespread criticism he received for Spiderman 3, with many citing it as the worst in the series and also suggesting that Raimi had somehow diluted his status as a director by pandering to commercial pressures. With 'Drag me to hell', part of me suspects that Raimi has only made this film as a response to his position as a film maker, proving that when he works outside the constraints of a studio project, he can show an impressive grasp of genre and also produce a film that expresses a personal interest in specific ideas and concerns.

Poster artwork from the marketing campaign

With 'Drag me to Hell', Raimi references profusely and rapidly a range of key favourite horror films from obscure Hammer productions like Terence Fisher's 'The Devil Rides Out' to more familiar examples of the American horror genre like 'Psycho'. The self referential approach makes Raimi's film altogether more pleasurable for the fans of his Evil Dead trilogy. This is especially effective and evident in much of the dark humour that accompanies the supernatural elements of what is in many ways a predictable horror film. Great horror films tend to be judged greatly on the ending and what separates 'Drag me to Hell' from many of recent torture porn exploitation horror films is the brilliantly judged final sequence. In terms of genre expectations, here is finally an American horror film that really knows how to confound the audience without resorting to some kind of narrative compromise. What also makes Raimi's film very timely is the nature of the central character's occupation as Christine Brown, played by Alison Lohman, is a loan officer working in a non-descript bank. She is shown to be a gatekeeper, approving and denying loans to the American middle class but the competitive nature of her job means that she is subjected to the rituals of a capitalist system that brings about her own destruction. I'm not sure but it felt as though Raimi was commenting on how the collapse of an economic system may actually be a positive thing considering how soulless society has become of late. This is by no means a masterpiece (once again the UK poster for the film is bludgeoned with a deluge of absurdist quotes from critics) but it is a surprisingly original and witty entry in the contemporary American horror genre and thankfully, no torture.


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