Drag Me to Hell - Don't lose your head
Sam Raimi's 'Drag Me to Hell' is leading a renaissance in the horror genre. Jaded by torture porn, Kaleem Aftab celebrates a return to more cerebral films that reveal the inner demons
Friday 05 June 2009
Sam Raimi, thank you. Though the film-maker has been holed up over the past decade turning Spider-Man into a mega franchise, he will go down in cinema history for giving the world The Evil Dead in 1981.
It's the classic horror film of the Eighties, and that's saying something in a decade that gave us Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, the A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th monsters who would eventually come to meet in 2003.
Now, 27 years later, Raimi has returned to the genre and made another stab at low-budget horror with Drag Me to Hell, a story of a female bank clerk (Alison Lohman) who is put under a curse when she refuses a loan to a desperate client. Whether by design or accident, it's one of the first movies to address the credit crunch. More importantly for fans of horror, Drag Me to Hell, alongside the recent Swedish vampire flick Let the Right One In, directed by Tomas Alfredson, and Lars von Trier's controversial Cannes entry Antichrist have kicked off a much-needed revitalisation of the genre that is likely to continue later in the year when several much-anticipated scare fests arrive on our screens.
Frights to look forward to include Benicio del Toro starring in The Wolf Man, a remake of the 1941 classic that is being penned by Seven and Sleepy Hollow scriptwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, Splice starring Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley as two geneticists who create a new being mixing animal and human DNA, which is being produced by Guillermo del Toro and then, following up her smash-hit film Juno, Diablo Cody presents Jennifer's Body, which stars Megan Fox as Jennifer Check, a teen sacrificed by a devil-worshipping rock band who inadvertently becomes the host of a demon.
It may sound strange to talk of the need to revitalise a genre, when horror films have been churned out over the past few years like never before and have continued to disturb the box-office charts. Take a closer look, though, at the films enticing audiences and it's a series of sequels – all those Freddy and Jason movies, reboots such as House of Wax, which starred Paris Hilton (need I say more), and then an evil host of movies such as Eli Roth's Hostel that have come to be known by the umbrella term "torture porn".
Torture porn is possibly the worst movement in the history of cinema, a sub-genre of the splatter movies that began appearing in the early 1960s that placed emphasis on visuals and positively thrived on lack of plot. Narrative development is a mere inconvenience in these films but at least these films knew their place in B-movie theatres. It was only the good ones such as George A Romero's classic Dawn of the Dead that broke out into the mainstream.
In sharp contrast, torture-porn movies are often mainstream Hollywood films with good production values that are backed by huge marketing campaigns and wide releases that ensure exposure. The basic plot of the films is that a group of people, preferably women, will walk into a hellhole where a maniac with the mind of an Abu Ghraib guard will inflict physical pain using whatever tools they can get their hand on. The threat of rape and murder are vital ingredients in ramping up the tension. The term was first coined to describe Eli Roth's Hostel in 2005, but the torture in Prague movie came around only after several films such as Saw had established the ground rules for the genre.
The film that really started the trend and turned horror into ridiculous and mostly boring sequences of graphic violence was From Dusk Till Dawn. The 1996 movie was made at the height of Quentin Tarantino's popularity when the director was so indulged that he was allowed to get away with simply writing the movie and handing the directing duties to Robert Rodriguez, all so that he could take on one of the lead roles opposite George Clooney. At least it was an original way for the Pulp Fiction director to show up his limitations as an actor. The film itself is almost split into two. The first half sets up what looks like it's going to be a psychological chiller when a bank robbery goes wrong, but descends into farce as soon as the Gecko Brothers enter a Mexican den full of criminal vampires and Salma Hayek dancing on a pole. The whole thing was a big-budget travesty that gained a cult following.
As American horrors turned into sick gore fests, the only bright lights of the genre came from Japan with the so-called J-Horror that saw the arrival of such classics as Hideo Nakata's Ring trilogy. The leading exponent was the once formidable Takashi Miike, a director whose output is so prolific he makes Rainer Werner Fassbinder look lethargic. Miike made Audition, one of the scariest films I've ever seen, but then seemed to get infected with the torture-porn bug and has never been the same since he went slasher crazy with Ichi the Killer in 2001.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Tarantino, Miike and Roth are great friends, with the Japanese director making a special appearance in Roth's Hostel: Part II, while Roth, a terrible actor, is one of the main stars of Tarantino's latest movie Inglourious Basterds.
The greatest shame is that modern British films such as Eden Lake, Donkey Punch and Severance took their leads from torture porn rather than British classics such as Michael Powell's Peeping Tom. The only recent respite from horror-slasher hell seemed to come from Spain and Mexico, especially those that had the involvement of Pan's Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro. The Orphanage (2007) by Juan Antonio Bayona was a particular highlight.
What Raimi, von Trier and Alfredson have done in their movies, like in nearly all the great horror films, such as Rosemary's Baby, Psycho and The Exorcist, is that they have placed the emphasis on psychological damage rather than physical damage. This in turn means that when the violence surfaces in the movie it has a greater impact than when shown with no context.
Everyone remembers the great Alfred Hitchcock shower scene in Psycho but it's doubtful that the knife flailing back and forth would have had such a great impact had we not spent time learning of the criminal ways of victim Marion Crane (Janet Leigh).
It was the Freudian horror of what happens in our minds that made Psycho so brilliant, while The Exorcist took advantage of the relationship of society and the individual with God. When violence appears in Raimi's Drag Me to Hell, it's not meant to be real, often it's hilarious, and what Raimi tries to show is what is going on in the mind of his principal character. Likewise, nearly all of the graphic violence in Antichrist takes place in the mind of Charlotte Gainsbourg. And what makes Let the Right One In so appealing is not the visual effects, often they are perfunctory, but that Alfredson uses the inevitable exclusion felt by vampires from modern life to muse on isolation and alienation.
The best movies of the genre are those that say something about the times we live in. Raimi warns us to try and help others in times of economic hardship, while von Trier wants depression to be less of a taboo subject. They are about our personal demons, which the great horror films will then often manifest as memorable monsters, or complicated villains, rather than just trotting out the faceless maniacs that fans of horror have had to endure recently. Thankfully, horror is making a long-overdue return to mind over body.
Drag Me to Hell is out now
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