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Although it wasn’t mentioned to the Paramount Theater’s packed house last night, the screening was a ‘work in progress’ cut of Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell.  (It was listed as such on the SXSW schedule.)  Aside from several incomplete visual effects shots, some temporary audio, and the missing end credits, the film looked to be a fairly good representation of the final product.  For that reason, this counts as a review but I won’t be providing a final grade.

Drag Me To Hell stars Alison Lohman as Christine, a bank loan officer hoping for a promotion from her boss Mr. Jacks (David Paymer) but foiled at every turn by her conniving co-worker Stu (Reggie Lee).  Hoping to prove that she can “make tough decisions” that obviously favor the bank over the individual, Christine turns down a third extension on an old lady’s mortgage.  Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) reacts poorly to the news and propagates the old gypsy stereotype by placing a curse on the girl.  Of course, she does this only after a parking lot battle royale between the old woman and Christine involving staples to the face, hair pulling, punches, kicks, denture loss, and a disgusting bit of chin gumming.  The curse gives Christine three days of torment at the hands of Labia the goat demon before he arrives to literally drag her to hell.  (The demon’s name is actually Lamia, but this review is a work in progress so a temp name is in place.)

Plotwise, Drag Me To Hell offers absolutely nothing new.  Christine finds a psychic who happens to not only believe her but who has actual abilities, and he brings her to Miss San Dena (Adrianna Baraza), the only one known to have ever come face to face with Labia.  Granted, she’s averaging a zero percent success rate since the little boy she tried to save died and was pulled into the fiery bowels of hell… but she’s still Christine’s best chance.  At Christine’s side is her boyfriend, Clay (Justin Long), who accepts her experiences with little question and even less personality.  Long is normally a fairly reliable comedic player, but he’s overshadowed by comedy found elsewhere in the film.  And the (mostly intentional) laughs are definitely abundant.

The ubiquitous seance scene plays out like a funny version of the one from The Unborn.  (Which was also pretty funny come to think of it.)  Most of the film follows that same pattern.  Rules are made then broken, such as the three day waiting period before hell comes a knocking.  The little boy from the film’s intro had only been tormented and taunted by voices and visions before first coming in contact with Labia at which point the demon throws people around the room with ease.  Christine is getting physically tossed into walls and furniture on day one, which goes against the stated setup that it takes the demon three days to fully manifest.  Shadows and creaky metal gates aren’t enough to scare anyone, demonized faces appearing in cell phones (taking the place of mirrors) aren’t enough to terrify, and we’re left with an old lady vomiting maggots onto Christine’s face and into her open mouth (which is most likely the part that inspired Ellen Page decided to walk away from the role.)

Drag Me To Hell is being billed as Raimi’s “return to horror” but at best it’s his return to comedy.  Yes, his genre films have always included comedic elements… Evil Dead II is chock full of fantastic slapstick, but there was still an element of hardcore horror and scares.  Drag Me To Hell can only manage the gross-out, and it does so ad nauseum with something wet and gross happening every five minutes.  None of it is scary or unsettling though, which is the single requirement for a horror film.  Raimi loads the movie with loud noises, camera zooms, and other cues to tell you you’re scared.  (You won’t be.)  He attempts to manufacture jump scares with these techniques, but it’s difficult to laugh and be scared at the same time.  This isn’t tension-induced nervous laughter either… you’ll be laughing at the intentional bits of visual comedy like well-placed posters and kitten meows, the ridiculously extreme set-pieces (like the awesome and spontaneous bloody nose scene), the piss poor dialogue, the shockingly bad acting (everyone in this has done far better work), and more… but you won’t be scared.  At the end of the day, Raimi has made a pretty good comedy, but a really shitty horror film.

For the record, and if audience reaction last night is a true indicator, the vast majority of them loved the film.  So your mileage may vary.  Drag Me To Hell is worth a look for the laughs and gross-out scenes, but do yourself a favor and don’t expect anything resembling a horror film.

For more of the best SXSW Film 2009 coverage on the web, keep it locked to our official SXSW ’09 homepage.


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