Monthly Archives: June 2009

DRAG ME TO HELL

Just saw Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell last night and had a blast. Raimi serves generous helpings of gross-out horror without any gore — no chopped limbs or anything like that. It’s also hilarious and the most fun I’ve had in a theatre in a long time. I haven’t seen any of the Evil Dead movies so this was my introduction to Raimi’s brand of horror, but his return to the genre has definitely encouraged me to look up his originals.

The tone is consistent but hard to capture with one adjective. None of the characters act like they are in a horror comedy such as Scream — they are perfectly earnest — but the film is very much intentionally funny. The humor always comes from the situations and the fact that, from frame one, you know exactly what Alison Lohman is thinking at all times without her needing to say it.

On the basis of the plot, Drag Me to Hell is absolutely a remake of Jacques Tourneur’s 52-year-old classic Night of the Demon, from premise-establishing introduction to train-station conclusion. But Raimi’s version resists comparison at all points because it is 180-degrees different in terms of style, tone, and everything. Tourneur’s black-but-mostly-white photography of brightly lit interiors gives way to ornately detailed interiors in lurid color.

Even the method of frightening is different, exchanging psychological dread for a steady diet of jump-scares. Subtlety of either the video or audio varieties is anathema to this film but Raimi does a great job of making you truly enjoy how gratuitous it all is, in a celebration of classic horror movie gimmicks that are polished up to look their best.

Because of this approach, I expected Raimi to improve on the original’s risible depiction of the demon with recourse to superior special effects, but he goes one better by restoring Tourneur’s own desire never to reveal the demon, which had been filmed by producer Hal Chester against the director’s wishes. Though it is a wise improvement, it is strangely out of character with the rest of Raimi’s film which favors visual grotesqueries over the original’s preference for the suggestion of hidden terrors. The most obvious example is the replacement of Tourneur’s warlock played by Niall MacGinnis, a soft-spoken and friendly mannered gentleman who harmlessly entertains children as a birthday party clown, with a hideous gypsy hag who looks every bit as malevolent as she is.

One thing which struck me in particular, which I had never noticed in any of his Spider-Man movies, is how effective Raimi is with traditional filmmaking techniques. The editorial highlight of the film is a knock-out, drag-(me)-out fight in close quarters which is brilliantly constructed using pure montage to show you what’s happening instead of attempting to communicate the supposed confusion of a fight with shaky camera techniques. I think Raimi’s classical approach is actually much more faithful to the experience of an intense fight in which one’s senses are heightened and adrenaline produces a kind of clarity rather than confusion.

In terms of shot-by-shot montage I think Raimi is the peer of De Palma and the Coens, the two (I mean three) filmmakers I thought of while watching the movie. During the film I thought it was odd that I should be reminded of them, but now that I think about it, A Simple Plan is a very Coenesque morality tale so perhaps the comparison is not so off the wall.

At any rate, I think Drag Me to Hell is the first movie in 2009 I’ve wanted to see a second time. The best one-line evaluation is the last sentence of David Edelstein’s review in New York magazine: “Truly, this is manna from hell.”

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Terminator Salvation

In 2003, Terminator was the first of the 1980s action franchises to be resurrected in the twenty-first century, soon followed by revivals of Alien and Predator (twice), Rocky, Die Hard, and Rambo in quick succession. Yet with intervals of seven, twelve, and six years between installments, Terminator has actually been the most reluctant to exploit its commercial potential over the years.

The only one yet to have re-established a foothold in this decade is Robocop, but its dubious franchise history lives on in this Terminator movie in the form of the useless little girl from Robocop III. It would be a small consolation that her character is at least unable to speak, but this only contributes further to her contrived nature and highlights her narrative superfluity.

Franchise mash-up specialists Dark Horse Comics, who were responsible for the original Aliens vs. Predator comic book in 1990, parlayed the success of Robocop II and T2 into a four-issue miniseries written by Frank Miller with delicious art by Walt Simonson: Robocop vs. the Terminator. In Terminator Salvation, the predicament of death row inmate Marcus Wright is so similar to that of Detroit cop Alex Murphy that the film could be called Robocop vs. John Conner, but if the new Terminator model has a cinematic opposite, it is undoubtedly Iron Man. While Tony Stark is all human with a mechanical heart, Marcus Wright is his photographic negative, all machine with a human heart.

As for the third John Conner in three movies, the Hoarse Whisperer is locked into his hoarsest and whisperest. If I didn’t know any better I’d say Conner was a better actor at ten years old (Edward Furlong), but I suppose Christian Bale himself was better at that age too. Anyway, I guess we should be thankful Bale was a pacifist in Reign on Fire who never tried to fly any helicopters because in this movie he seems incapable of piloting one without crashing it. The first time he does so is the visual highpoint of the film, in which the camera seems to board the craft, crash with it, and disembark the wreck in a single, continuous shot reminiscent, if not imitative, of Children of Men. Unfortunately this leaves no further cinematic treats to savor in the second helicopter crash, or indeed the rest of the movie.

Other quotations of cinema include Steve McQueen’s iconic motorcycle jump from The Great Escape, a reference so obvious it is kind of refreshing to see a director actually do it. A quotation of a slightly less iconic scene is an aerial attack on a bridge that reminded me not so much of True Lies or Mission Impossible III, as of the opening action set piece from Charlie Angels 2 (i.e., Full Throttle).

Michael Ironside reprises his character from Starship Troopers and a hundred other movies (literally), but this less an allusion to the actor’s body of work than unimaginative typecasting. A better casting decision was Bryce Dallas Howard (The Village, Lady in the Water, Spider-Man 3), taking up the role Claire Danes created in the last movie. Although it’s true that she is criminally underused with so few lines, she does fine without because all she really needs to remind Conner what he’s fighting for are her big doe eyes. With her maternity bump it’s a wonder there are no Terminators targeting her but apparently the children of messiahs do not really register on the Skynet radar like the parents of messiahs do.

One of them, Kyle Reese, gets to shotgun a T-101 (fresh off the production line) through a window-equivalent, just like he did/will do upon first meeting another one in 1984. As for verbal franchise quotations, unlike Bale’s ‘I’ll be back’, which I don’t think Conner ever heard Schwarzenegger say to anyone in the movies, the younger Reese’s ‘Come with me if you want to live’ is a restoration of the phrase to its original character after Arnie had co-opted from him in T2.

It should be kept in mind, therefore, that these visual and verbal cannibalizations of the franchise’s memorable moments are only following the precedent established by Cameron’s own sequel, a convention now as essential to the franchise as. . . time travel? Evidently not. As Reese, Anton ‘Chekov’ Yeltin was probably surprised to find a Terminator movie to be the only one he’s in this year that does NOT include time traveling.

Other franchise themes put in the ejector seat are the dread specter of technology. In the first Terminator film, every frivolous use of a hairdryer or Walkman is an ominous portent of where our dependence on technology might lead. But in the latest film, any trace of a double-edged depiction of technology as used by the Resistance has all but evaporated, as John Conner repeatedly uses a conspicuously labeled Sony device without a micron of irony.

SPOILER

But perhaps the biggest surprise is that the act of salvation promised by the title is usurped from the franchise’s longstanding J.C. figure by another character who, within five minutes of the beginning, is executed in blatant cruciform position and then, after being resurrected, saves the ostensible savior of the world with another sacrificial act (this time voluntary).

I suppose salvation by Terminator would be a great revisionist take on the franchise were it not played to maximum effect in the last two movies. John Conner must feel a little humiliated that instead of finally realizing his destiny, he’s just been saved by the enemy for a third time.