“We’re gonna need a bigger goat.”

drag-me-to-hell

The above line is copyright a guy called David Solomons. So please forgive him for writing FIVE CHILDREN AND IT.

But our subject today is a different fairy tale, one by Sam Raimi. It’s about a magic button that can transport you to an enchanted kingdom. Called Hell.

But should Sam’s movie, DRAG ME TO HELL, be called DON’T DRAG ME TO HELL? Anyhow, as everyone will tell you, it’s a more-funny-than-scary thrill-ride full of bodily fluids and things that go bump. It’s also rather ethnically insensitive in its stereotyping of gypsies as curse-giving harpies and drunken revelers. One sympathetic gypsy, that’s all I’m asking.

Since nobody seems to be shouting about the film’s borrowing from Jacques Tourneur and Charles Bennett’s NIGHT OF THE DEMON, by way of MR James’s source story The Casting of the Runes, Fiona wants me to point this out, particularly how the film’s climax shows a character caught between a pursuing demon and an oncoming train. The idea of the object that dooms its owner to hell and must be passed on to some other poor victim also appears in Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale The Bottle Imp (filmed by me, not too skillfully, some years ago). 

If there was something missing here, and I felt there was, it was a lead character in tune with the hyperkinetic ‘toon slam-bang of Raimi’s action sequences. Bruce Campbell in the EVIL DEAD films is popular precisely because he makes everything funnier. Alison Lohman’s casting here is supposed to evoke sympathy, which seems at odds with the film’s gleeful splattering and battering of the poor protag. The film’s second act is basically a serious of savage beatings and facials. It’s in keeping with the kitten-slaughtering gimmick, admittedly, since Lohman’s chief attribute on display is perkiness and wide-eyed naivety. But torturing a cutie-pie may be entertaining to some people on some level but I don’t know how funny it is. Bruce Campbell always engaged the audience in a strange way so that they shared his sense of the ridiculousness of his ordeals. Maybe Lohman could have done some of that, but she certainly hasn’t been required to.

Lorna Raver (!) is suitably vile as the Romany hell-hag, Bojana Novakovic is striking as her grand-daughter, and Dileep Rao underplays nicely as a mystic who keeps saying “Yes,” in a calm voice. But the trouble with underplaying in a Raimi movie is that he kind of lets the air out of every scene that isn’t a ghost-train/abattoir action set-piece. The performances don’t seem to quite connect with each other, the words dying in the sound stage vacuum between the actors: a thin murmur of post-dubbed atmos is piped in to fill the gaps, but blank spaces seem to yawn between each shot, Peter Deeming’s photography seems overlit, especially compared to what he achieved on LOST HIGHWAY, and CG shadows are a poor substitute for the real thing.

Borrowing from his SPIDERMAN franchise a little, Raimi fills the screen with CGI (another MR James adaptation, Jonathan Miller’s TV play Whistle and I’ll Come to You shows that a mere piece of floating fabric can be truly terrifying, but it must be real fabric) and gets the heroine wet. Because that’s the way to a fanboy’s heart. 

Still, Fiona and I somewhat enjoyed the film, possibly because the central romance between a cute girl and a nerdy guy sort of resonated with us for some reason.

Now I’m off to shoot my low-budget remake, DRAG ME OVER THERE. It’ll be quite short.

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16 Responses to ““We’re gonna need a bigger goat.””

  1. Isn’t Raimi counterplaying her perkiness and cuteness with the fact that she is inevitably unsympathetic as she could indeed have offered the woman another extension? She went after the job to make herself seem better in her potential In-Laws’ eyes instead of helping the gypsy – make someone homeless to make yourself look better. And then she does increasingly awful things and contemplates even worse the closer her time comes? Her question of survival is important as the punishment is ridiculously severe, but she is essentially damned from the outset. I’d actually have liked to have seen the old gypsy dragged away – how many others has she condemned to this fate for looking at her the wrong way?

    But a lot of fun was had, and that seems to have been the whole bleedin’ (and gummy) point,

  2. It would take a lot more than perkiness to counter her unsympathetic qualities. Raimi has said it’s about a good person who does something bad, but as you say, she’s not inherently that good. Cuteness doesn’t cut it. Although she gets points for resisting various temptations.

    You’re right that the gypsy isn’t too sympathetic either, but that strikes me as part of the film’s reactionary leaning. We side with the gypsy in her first scene, but then she just becomes a disgusting monster.

    It is mostly fun, but I had to find more to say than that!

  3. Curse of the Demon was one of Ken Adam’s very first production designer credits.

  4. I think I liked the film slightly less than you and Fiona, but the one scene I enjoyed in a more than just guffawing-through-popcorn kind of way was the dinner scene with the parents, which hit on certain aspects of the Lohman character’s discomfort with herself, and certain strengths she had that might have saved her, in a way that seemed like real screenwriting & directing rather than nuts-bolts genre stuff. A bit more of that would have taken us a long way, but it would also have left the audience devastated at the demise of a real, sympathetic human being. Raimi’s stuck between two stools – the grossout, gummed to death or choking on embalming fluid style of his early work, and his deft evocations of how people really act around each other in more recent films (oh, come on, admit it – the first Spiderman film had a few scenes that really worked in among all the crappy CGI). It’s an interesting example of a filmmaker doing one of his early projects at a point where he’s clearly outgrown it. Intriguing but pointless.

  5. Night of the Demon is one of our all-time favourites. And Ken Adam is such a charmer.

    You’re right to pick on the dinner scene as the most “sophisticated” in the movie, and also to say that the saving grace of the Spiderman series was its soap opera antics. By the time of the second film, this had become verbose and glutinous, but there was a real attempt to get some humanity into the first one, some of which was successful.

    I’m not sure if he’s outgrown the splatter stuff, or if he just WANTS to have outgrown it. I liked A Simple Plan best of his attempts to do something different, but most of his change-of-pace works have resulted in stuff someone else could do better. Whereas nobody could do Evil Dead II better.

    The more I think about Raimi’s visuals, the more I think he benefits from actual physical effects rather than CG.

  6. Yeah, I’ve been wondering why the absolutely HUGE similarities to Night of the Demon have rarely been mentioned by anyone.

    I enjoyed it though, good fun to see with an audience who are into it.

    I REALLY hope noone remakes Night of the Demon though.

  7. On the one hand, Night of the Demon is clearly not well enough known. on the other hand, that fact probably protects it from remakes.

    Actually, I think there is at least one made-for-TV adaptation of the MR James story.

    “Dana Andres said prunes / Gave him the runes / And passing them used lots of skill…”

  8. I pointed out the “Curse of the Demon” connection in my June 1st post at Bright Lights After Dark (http://blog.brightlightsfilm.com/2009/06/drag-me-to-hellstuck-women-in-trouble.html).

    Raimi is no Tourneur.

  9. Well said!

    As to Raimi’s abuse of Dunst-alikes in his films, if you look at images of Raimi himself as a young man, the facial shape is actually similar to his heroines. Maybe he’s mad at his mother.

    He’s no Tourneur, and he’s still trying to settle on what kind of Raimi he wants to be.

  10. Mike Chalmers Says:

    Good points and I understand all of your criticisms- however I did think that the kitty sacrifice had an excellent pay-off; the cat discussion at the parents’ house is so uncomfortable (and Lohman’s reaction so odd) that it makes for the funniest moment in the film.

    Glad you enjoyed it anyway, best of luck with the remake.

  11. Everything about that scene at the parents’ house shows what a fine film it could be. Best dinner scene since Eraserhead. The eyeball staring from the slice of cake was marvelous.

  12. Coughing up a fly under the horrified gaze of your future mother-in-law! It’s every girl’s worst fear.

  13. Immaculate referencing, David; M.R James, O Whistle and I’ll Come to You, Night of the Demon (I seem to recall a reasonably good 1980s TV version with Iain “Charlie Endell” Cuthbertson too – “Is it my false lip?”). Tourneur’s summoning of evil forces during a children’s party still chills me.

    Those BBC M.R James adaptations were ghost story Gold Standards despite the occasional campery of Lost Hearts. I thought Mark Gattis’ Crooked House was a fine addition to the tradition. Although it was no “Schalken the Painter”.

    I loved Sam Raimi’s zinger inversion of the last-minute, electric chair Mayoral reprieve in Crimewave: “Am I too late?” No. “Thank goodness (removes hat and sits down) I didn’t want to miss this”

  14. Satanism in a children’s party is a very Hitchcockian touch, reminding us of Charles Bennett’s involvement as screenwriter — it’s a device similar to the villain’s family being present in The 39 Steps.

    I’d forgotten that line in Crimewave. That movie has some really nice bits — and some unspeakably awful bits, most of which were not Raimi’s fault.

    Crooked House was decent, especially the horrible ending. Jonathan Miller’s Oh Whistle is the greatest of all BBC ghost stories, still able to thrill with sheer panic.

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