Is Drag Me To Hell A Great B-Movie? Or Just A Bad Movie?

Alison Lohman: doesn't want to be dragged to hell.

Alison Lohman: doesn't want to be dragged to hell.

It’s not often a modern horror film garners universal acclaim from the critics of the world, a mob collectively cynical about the modern horror form, and consistently bored by the narrative weakness often inherent in it.

They tend to be too wary of the typical over-reliance on cheap thrills, loud noises, and grotesque bloodwork. They don’t like the cheap tricks. They yearn for the slow burn of Hitchcock, the semi-cerebral murderousness of Wes Craven — even the cold, clinical effectiveness of John Carpenter.

It’s a little surprising then to see Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell so consistently lauded. Dana Stevens at Slate called it a ‘brilliantly nasty little horror film.’ Scott Tobias at the The Onion A.V. Club labelled it ‘distinctly unburdened and fun.’ Jeannette Catsoulis at The New York Times claims the film has a ‘tonic playfulness that’s unabashedly retro.’

Those reviews are representative of a wider feeling that Drag Me To Hell is somehow a return to form; not just for Raimi (who has helmed the last three Spiderman films, to fantastic commercial and sporadically critical success), but for the horror genre itself.

The overwhelming positivity seems to stem from the winking, knowing, playfully bombastic tone of the film, with its cheap 80s-esque special effects, and plot transplanted from a 1950s pulp novel. (The name of the film — so charmingly ridiculous — offers the first clue that you’ll need to watch it with your tongue planted firmly in your cheek).

More than anything, critics seem relieved that they’re not being actively tortured. ‘Unlike so much contemporary horror,’ writes Stephanie Zacharek of Salon, the film is ‘devoid of sadism and mean-spiritedness.’

The hypersadism of, say, Alexandra Aja (who helmed 2006’s surprisingly effective remake of Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes) or Eli Roth (the over-hyped, oddly monotonous Hostel, 2005) is replaced by Raimi’s obvious delight at playing with the conventions of modern horror — or, more accurately, completely subverting them.

The evil in Drag Me To Hell manifests not as a machete-sporting, disfigured abomination, nor a slit-eyed killer with a lust for teenage blood. No, Raimi leaves it largely unseen, hinted at by whispers and shadows. It is a corny, romantic kind of evil, based in the hoodoo of Victorian lore more than the celluloid freaks and ghouls we’re typically offered.

'This... is my boomstick!'

'This... is my boomstick!'

Which makes sense. Raimi is, of course, the man who directed the Evil Dead series — a trilogy that became progressively more ridiculous and campy until, in the third chapter (1992’s Army Of Darkness), we’re treated to plastic skeletons marauding around with swords, and star Bruce Campbell explaining his shotgun to confused citizens of the medieval age: ‘this is my boomstick!’

The spectacular chin, and career-defining, brilliantly pompous performance of Campbell made it clear to audiences that Evil Dead II and Army Of Darkness were supposed to be preposterous.

Drag Me To Hell, for many audience members I attended the film with, lacked similar signifiers. Many missed the joke. One openly wondered, as the credits rolled, whether this was ‘one of the worst films ever made.’

Of course, it’s not. But to enjoy the film, as most critics have, requires a sympathetic audience. It demands that the audience revel in the silliness of a loan manager stapling the head of a one-eyed gypsy woman in a carpark. It needs viewers just as prepared to howl in delight as in fear.

The effects are almost uniformly terrible; one notable highlight being hell itself rendered like a bad Photoshop.

The script is often (charmingly) atrocious, demanding Justin Long and Alison Lohman deliver ham-fisted sentimentality with square-jawed seriousness and steely-eyed resolve.

But it works. Drag Me To Hell is a bad film done very well, by a director sure of what tone he wants, and how he’ll get it. Raimi treats very silly material — a possessed, talking goat in one scene — with the utmost respect. And the results are schlocky, and decadently ridiculous.

Posted By: Anton

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Dragonslayer and the Myth of Experimentation

Spencer Krug of Sunset Rubdown.

Spencer Krug of Sunset Rubdown.

Reviews of the new Sunset Rubdown album (e.g. here and here) are relatively adulatory. But even while both Pitchfork and Coke Machine Glow praise it, they bear this implication that the earlier Sunset Rubdown albums were somehow purer in their ‘experimentalism’ (I can’t believe we’re still in this pure/unpure dichotomy that is so unproductive) and that, by making their work more ‘pop,’ they were somehow compromising, even if the reviews end up praising this as a successful compromise.

This crystallises something I’ve thought about for a while, and it afflicts most web music writing, and that is an absolute refusal to think systematically about aesthetics.

All varieties of pop music (as in, music that can draw its origins, in however tangled and a diluted way, back to ‘folk’ forms as opposed to what we can — somewhat uselessly — call concert music), just as in any other art form, are engaged with the question, whether they know it or not, of ‘what is great art?’ And great works always respond with ‘this is’.

The only way, in pop music, for that statement to be expressed is in ‘the song’. Most widely regarded artists have started with simpler structures and expanded out into art: Dylan, Radiohead, etc. The previous (third) Sunset Rubdown album sounded like ideas about songs rather than songs. This was not some ‘purer,’ more ‘experimental’ incarnation, but an artistic failure. They couldn’t embody what they wanted to do — they could only tell us what they wanted to do.

The new album may not be great, or I may not be one to judge that, but it is a significant improvement on the previous album, so I’m perplexed when I read bizarrely phrased paragraphs like this:

But, that’s the way we’re used to Sunset Rubdown sounding: fussy, untouchable, otherwordly. Let’s not associate difficulty with quality though. RSL had a greater chance for escape and awe; Dragonslayer was built for performance, and it sounds good live because the songs sound comfortable and straightforward. Sunset Rubdown are best when they are unfettered by those concerns, when they are fully soaked in their own set of thematic and sonic touchstones and could give a shit if they’re understood or not.

That’s the final paragraph of the Pitchfork review. The review reminds us, firstly, ‘let’s not associate difficulty with quality though’, then that the previous album ‘had a greater chance for escape and awe’, then that Dragonslayer ‘sounds good live because the songs sound comfortable and straightforward’, then the non-sequitur of a final sentence.

What are these ‘concerns’ that Sunset Rubdown are best when avoiding? Why finish with this facile comparison anyway? The compromise is not in the artist who works  to refine an aesthetic, but in the critic who’d prefer to cheerlead failure than celebrate success.

Posted By: Rory

Compare & Contrast: Cash & Green Do Hank (With Bonus Cat)

Hank Williams.

Hank Williams.

Hank Williams released I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry in 1949, as a b-side to the slightly less impressive My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It. Four years later, Williams died alone, in the back of a hired Cadillac.

Hank Williams: I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (single, 1949).

His death in 1953, at the age of 30, was a terrible shame; apart from the obvious reasons (he was a great songwriter, he had kids), his passing meant Williams never got to hear two of the finest vocalists of the 20th century doing one of his best songs.

Al Green, he of the whispered honey vocals, relocates the track from under the empty skies of the country into the inner city, at night, lonely under a streetlight:

Al Green: I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (from Call Me, 1973).

Cash sings it like young Hank never could, with a voice worn out from life, frayed by the singer’s proximity to death:

Johnny Cash: I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (from American IV: The Man Comes Around, 2002).

If he had somehow made it to the age of 85, Old Hank would’ve been treated to Chan Marshall wrapping her velvet lips around Ramblin’ Man:

Cat Power: Ramblin’ (Wo)man (from Jukebox, 2008).

Posted By: Anton

The Lazy Misogyny Of The Hangover

Not pictured: women.

Not pictured: women.

Director Todd Phillips has no affection for women.

At least, if he does, he’s yet to have it manifest in any of his films.

In 2003’s Road Trip, the memorable female characters consisted of a) an immensely fat black woman who forces herself on D.J. Squalls’ porcelain matchstick body and b) Amy Smart as the bland, briefly topless Beth Wagner. Starsky & Hutch (2004) was predictably, and perhaps more justifiably, male-dominated. Both viewed women as afterthoughts, sporadic punchlines, defined either by their attractiveness, or lack thereof.

School For Scoundrels, a largely ignored Billy Bob Thornton vehicle from 2006, was much of the same, in terms of interesting female characters: there were none. The film was a consistently unfunny attempt to satirise the ‘nice guys finish last’ classes given by ‘pick-up experts’ like David DeAngelo. Thornton played a hardass, whilst Jon ‘I can’t believe Napoleon Dynamite will represent the peak of my career’ Heder played a geek. A variety of women turn up — including a wasted Sarah Silverman — as plot devices.

The Hangover, Phillips’ most recent (and successful, both comedically and commercially) work is arguably the worst of the lot, presenting women as warm-hearted whores, nut-cracking bitches, or spectacular-looking dum dums.

Heather Graham may be the most prominent of the Hangover women. She plays Jade, a seemingly simple, if sweet, lady of the night. She’s inexplicably happy about her shotgun marriage to Stu Price (Ed Helms), despite his lack of charisma, charm, intelligence, or maturity. Why is she so chuffed about her drunken nuptials? The early implication is that she views Price as a source of funds for her baby… who she un-self-consciously allows to suckle on her breast in front of the four primary protagonists.

The script makes no effort to provide Graham with humorous dialogue; the mere fact she’s (at least initially) a money-grubbing prostitute apparently provides humour enough.

The normally likeable, charismatic Graham is reduced to a gold-digging retard, a set of breasts milked for the cheapest of laughs. There’s no complexity to Jade; the only surprise she provides is a slight warmth at the culmination of the film. She is who the audience thinks she’ll be.

Then there’s Rachael Harris as Melissa, the most explicitly misogynist of the characters. Harris plays a cruel, undermining bitch. That’s it. That’s the extent of her character. She exists solely to terrorise her husband, Stu, while acting as a cold counterpoint to the relatively warm-hearted Jade.

Harris is given one good line, when she tells Zach Galifianakis’ character to ‘suck my dick’ (he sweetly replies ‘no, thank you’). It’s telling that this brief glimmer of comedic hope stems from the masculinisation of a woman; Harris gets to be funny once — when she briefly inhabits the voice of a man.

Finally, there’s Sasha Barrese as Tracy Garner, the simplest of roles. She wears a bikini. She holds a phone.

Sasha Barrese

Sasha Barrese

Barrese is an actress — she’s recently appeared in CSI: Miami and Supernatural — but you wouldn’t know it by The Hangover. Her role as a concerned bride-to-be asks her to perform two functions: appearing simultaneously confused and attractive; or angry and attractive. Like Harris, she’s offered nothing by her cock-centric director. She’s an afterthought, a blank space for the more interesting, developed male characters to speak into.

These roles hardly testify to a confidence in Phillips that his female cast members can hold their comedic own.

Of course, Phillips — and his legions of fratboy fans — might argue that The Hangover is about men, just like Old School, and School for Scoundrels, and Starsky & Hutch, and Road Trip and, as such, bear little obligation to the inclusion of womb-owners.

At best, the argument indicts Phillips as a director clinically incapable of dedicating substantial screentime to women; it implies he has no interest in women as characters, or actors.

At worst, it belies a deliberate antipathy towards an entire gender, combined with a bizarre and persistent obsession with men.

Judd Apatow shares that obsession with men — specifically, the process by which boys grow up — but he treats his female characters with at least a little care. When Katherine Heigl was on-screen in Knocked Up, it wasn’t wasted time. Unlike Heather Graham in The Hangover, Heigl was more than a set of tits and a smile.

Apatow has received his share of criticism for treating women as shrill, whining afterthoughts, but at least those women act with intent. They have motive. And they’re given comedic respect — think of Elizabeth Banks in The 40 Year Old Virgin, who engages in an increasingly bawdy, sexually charged conversation with Steve Carrell. A part that could have easily been cheap and obvious (‘ho ho ho! This woman is talking so slutty!’) is transformed by Banks’ cheeky performance, and the equal camera time she receives.

The challenge for Phillips? Write a fully-formed female character, with complex motivations, rich desires, and a sense of existence not completely dependent upon and defined by her relationship with a man.

Based on his track record, Todd might find that difficult.

Posted By: Anton

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Federer, Nadal & The Foundation Of Style

Roger Federer.

Roger Federer.

From Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s In Praise of Athletic Beauty:

We may say that through the transfiguring lens of victory or defeat we remember certain athletic movements as dramatic gestures. More so than a halo or aura, a gesture captures, in a specific, concise movement, a critical moment in a dramatic narrative. Gestures, with their freeze-frame effect, make the pathos associated with these dramatic moments more visible and more memorable. They are like material signifiers that appear to be permeated by specific meanings, and they thus become signifiers whose materiality exceeds the function of just carrying a meaning.

Often we remember great athletes of the past and the present in this transfigured way. Roger Federer […] is such a case. We associate elegance and effortlessness with his flowing movements on the court that never seem to be centred on just one play. But the form and the rhythm of these movements, as an object of our perception and of our memory, tend to become independent of what we might read into them. They are unique, and they symbolize – by transfiguration – what we call ‘vintage Federer’.

These ‘unique’ movements, that ‘become independent of what we might read into them’ deserve some expansion.

Walter Benjamin famously commented, apropos Proust, that all great works of literature found a genre or dissolve one. We could adapt this dictum for our purposes by saying that all great sportsmen found a style or dissolve one. Implicit in the Benjamin comment is that these great works really always do both; no genre is dissolved without a new one taking its place; every great work of art is a work of enacted criticism, where our assumptions about genre — ‘the psychological novel’ or ‘the portrait’ or whatever — are shown to be narrow and misguided by A la recherche du temps perdu, by Braque’s The Portuguese.

In the same manner, Roger Federer and Raphael Nadal, in their own ways, demonstrate at least the latter half of the dictum. Federer’s success outside of Wimbledon dissolves the genre of the power baseliner, Nadal’s extra-Roland Garros success the genre of the dogged-retriever style rewarded most on clay.

What separates Federer from Nadal is not, then, the dissolution of a style, but the foundation of style. Federer, like all great sportsmen, has created a style of one. When we say ‘Vintage Federer’, what we mean is that Federer is enacting himself. When he plays badly, people will say ‘he’s not himself today’. This can’t be said of Nadal, who dissolved the retriever style by demonstrating that, with enough furious energy, the style was capable of expanding across all surfaces. When Federer plays at his best, he only plays like himself. He is his style, as his style can only be described as ‘Federer’.

Posted By: Rory