Drag Me to Hell
Any actor willing to look foolish on camera should be cherished for their surprising lack of shame. Since acting is almost entirely about insecurity, ego, and validation, someone willing to forgo all of that “for the good of the project” is a rare find. The king of this fearlessness is undoubtedly Kurt Russell, who enthusiastically donned a wig and a dress in Tango and Cash, made fun of his own previous performance in Elvis by playing an Elvis impersonator in 3000 Miles to Graceland, and took network TV programming suggestions from a chimp in The Barefoot Executive. But his bravest performance is quite clearly as arrogant truck driver Jack Burton in John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China, where he perfects the notion of the main character being totally unaware that he isn’t the hero, and is just in the way, scene after scene showing us what an idiot and Ugly American he is. This is best exemplified by a scene shot from a high angle down onto Russell, wearing cowboy boots, and looking about as tall as an undersized ten-year-old. Most actors are short (and have big heads), and directors will shoot low angles to make even dwarves like Tom Cruise and Antonio Banderas appear to be heroic giants.
Director Sam Raimi seemed to have learned from Carpenter and Russell, which is obvious from his Evil Dead series, specifically Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness, where star Bruce Campbell spends every single moment making a fool out of himself, but still tries to put a tough face on throughout. Campbell’s performance in Evil Dead 2, especially the 30 or so minutes he spends alone in a house filled with deadly off-screen demons, is some of the best acting ever put on film, because he manages to turn what could easily be dull material, since he has nothing to play off of or talk to, into riveting and hilarious surreal nonsense.
Raimi’s uncredited sequel to Army of Darkness is Drag Me to Hell, has Alison Lohman in Campbell’s part, and her courage shines through considering how she looks like a midget in mommy’s clothing for the entire 90 minutes. Whether or not Lohman was aware of what Raimi was doing isn’t clear, she may have thought he would play up her glamour like he did with Kirsten Dunst in the Spiderman films (well, really only the first one). One hint that Lohman didn’t know is that she plays her part of a sweet but opportunistic bank loan officer terrorized by a gypsy curse with such commitment and sincerity. Drag Me to Hell is both better and worse off for her decision. Better because it lends an unexpected level of realism to the story, making its deliberate tonal exaggerations using the typical Raimi bag of tricks (swirling extreme close-ups of disfigured swarthy types, ominous thunder and lightning, silly sound effects, demonic shadows, eyeball popping, slimy, goopy gore, etc.) not so much of an emotional stretch as it would be in an Evil Dead movie in a cabin in the woods. Worse because her character’s arrogance often comes out of nowhere and makes her look like an idiot not worth rooting for, especially as all the other actors in Drag Me to Hell under or overplay magnificently, such as Justin Long as Lohman’s boyfriend who nails his underwritten part perfectly.
Lohman does not get in the way of how much cheesy fun Drag Me to Hell is at all though; we still get fortune teller gobbledygook, a Mexican prologue, a superb parking lot attack (that shot where Lohman presses her face against the closed car door window trying to see where her foe went is fantastic), and a way-over-the-top séance scene, which features several moments of Lohman and a goat staring each other down, perhaps Raimi putting his belated hat into the ring for the recently completed adaptation of The Men Who Stare At Goats. As an audience, we may miss Bruce Campbell’s wisecracks (and his cameo, which is usually a must in a Raimi film), but Raimi achieves more with Drag Me to Hell, because while the movie is never more than mock-scary, he nails down the gothic-mythic tone of his most consistent comic-book style film, Darkman, which makes it a more cohesive film, as opposed to the energetic scattering of ideas in the Evil Dead series. In fact, Raimi’s hand is so assured in Drag Me to Hell that he even gets away with some awful CGI in the film’s final moments, and turns it into a giddy, clichéd and cliché-mocking masterpiece of camp. For what it is, Drag Me to Hell is nearly perfect. We should all be glad that Raimi was so generous and willing to steal from the best — himself.