Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Drag Me To Hell - Sam Raimi (2009)


Continuing our “gypsies” run with a review of the recent Sam Raimi film, Drag Me to Hell. It is Raimi’s first horror film in a long time – I’m aware I’m disregarding The Gift, here, which was an all right film, but not as much fun as a big Evil Dead fan like me would like it to be, and was more of a paranormal thriller than a horror film – one in which he goes back to his roots as the director of the Evil Dead trilogy. We should note that a fourth installation of the Evil Dead series is to be released in 2010.

Drag Me to Hell, written by Sam Raimi and his brother Ivan (who also co-wrote Army of Darkness), tells the story of Christine Brown, a southerner living in California, and trying to fit in by working on her accent and by trying to get a promotion in the bank she’s working as a loan officer. The assistant manager position is to go to either her, or her co-worker Stu. Christine’s boss advices her to prove herself by making tough decisions, which she does by denying an old Eastern European woman, Sylvia Ganush, a third extension on her mortgage. Sylvia begs Christine to help her in a forceful manner, and Christine has to call security to take her out.

When Christine leaves work in the evening, she gets attacked by Sylvia. Unable to beat Christine physically, Sylvia takes a button from her coat and curses her. Later that night, after Christine told the police about the incident, she and her boyfriend, Clay, go into fortuneteller’s store, to Clay’s protest. The fortuneteller tells her she is haunted by an evil spirit called Lamia, which will come to claim her soul in three days.

Christine is attacked by invisible forces for the next couple of days. She goes to talk to Sylvia but finds out she died from her daughter. She tries to get rid of the curse by sacrificing her cat, which doesn’t work. Neither does a 10.000$ séance. As a last resort, Christine tries to give the button to someone else, as Lamia will come for the owner of the cursed object. She decides to give it to Stu first, but she can’t get herself to do it. So she opens up Sylvia’s grave and puts the button (which is in an envelope) in her hand and goes to meet her boyfriend, only to realise, she gave the wrong envelope to Sylvia. It is the third day, and as she falls onto the railroad in panic, the ground opens and she is dragged into a pit of hellfire.

As much as The Wolf Man was ahead of its time in its treatment to gypsies, Drag Me to Hell goes back to the image of gypsies as source of evil. In the opening scene of the film, we see a Mexican family in late 1960s California, whose son is cursed by gypsies for stealing a necklace. The boy ends up dragged into hell, and dies a horrible death. Then, when the film moves onto present day, Christine is cursed by a “gypsy” woman, for doing her job. The film treats gypsies as the exotic, uncanny ‘other’.

There is a small scene in Drag Me to Hell, where the gypsies are portrayed in their celebratory mood during Sylvia’s funeral. Christine’s disturbance by this scene is quite apparent, as the laughter and the “beastly” appetite of Sylvia’s friends and relatives are emphasized in a grotesque way, and Christine’s face goes immediately sour. Sylvia, in true witch fashion (!), gives Christine trouble even in her death, her dead fingers pulling her hair out. Sylvia’s daughter has no sympathy for Christine either.

On the other hand, the gypsy characters aren’t the absolute evil in the text. Or rather, Christine is not the absolute good. Christine acknowledges she could have given Sylvia another extension but she didn’t do it for the sake of getting the promotion she wanted. She doesn’t refrain from sacrificing her cat, or considering condemning someone else to hell to save herself. In the end, she ends up being dragged into hell, and as the audience, we vaguely derive some pleasure from that.

What makes it all all right is that, there is kind of a tongue-in-cheek attitude in the film. Drag Me to Hell is a good old fashioned horror film in a modern make up. The special effects, with scenes featuring eyes popping, blood splattering, and green puke gashing are a tip of the hat to the Evil Dead films and all the gore films of the 1980s. In that regard, the gypsy curse might be regarded as an homage to another old horror film tradition.

Overall, I can say that I enjoyed watching this film in the cinema and I’m looking forward to seeing Evil Dead 4.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Wolf Man (1941) - George Waggner


As a remake of the classic horror movie The Wolf Man is due next year, with an all star cast of Anthony Hopkins, Benicio Del Toro, Hugo Weaving and Emily Blunt, I thought it would be an appropriate time to dig up one of my older drafts of a review on the 1941 version featuring Lon Chaney, Jr and Bela Lugosi and put it up on Macabresque.

The film is about Larry Talbot, who returns to his homeland, Wales from the US upon learning about his brother's death. One night, as he is walking with a woman called Jenny Williams around the gypsy camp near the town, he is attacked by the werewolf/gypsy Bela. Larry manages to kill him but is bitten during the process. Bela's mother Maleva tells him that he's marked (he has a pentagrad appearing in his hand) and that he will turn into a werewolf during certain times. The rhyme popularised by this movie goes:

Even a man who is pure in heart

and says his prayers by night

may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms

and the autumn moon is bright.

Talbot then starts turning into werewolf and terrorising the townsfolk. He tells his father Sir John about his curse, but he doesn't believe him. Sir John, hunting down the "wolf", finally catches him and kills him, only to find out that it was actually his son Larry, when he turns back into his human form.

Gypsies were often represented as untrustworthy, uncanny (bearing an uncanny sexuality) and supernatural people in gothic literature and early horror cinema. Bram Stoker, for example, employs them as Dracula's faithful servants. In old horror movies, a gypsy is, by default, an old hag who looks at whatever tool available to see the future (tarot cards, crystal spheres, palms) and see ill omens.

This is far from the romantic image of gypsies as an irrational (by which I mean "not belonging to the rationality of the Enlightenment and current capitalistic world order") people who hail each and every minute of life (and death) with songs and dance in a joyful manner - an image brought to life by such directors as Emir Kusturica and Tony Gatlif and recently bands like Gogol Bordello.

The Wolf Man presents a mixture of both these images related to gypsies. This is a movie set in England and it bears elements from the gothic literature tradition. In that same spirit, gypsies are portrayed as a source of the supernatural and as an uncanny people, yet they are not agents of absolute evil. They are allowed to live their tragedies. When the gypsy Bela dies, the old gypsy woman Maleva and a priest have a conversation about how the funeral service should be. Maleva does not want a Christian service, which makes the priest angry. He says he knows what they do, they dance and sing around the dead. To this, Maleva replies, "Us gypsies bury our dead like this for a thousand years. I couldn't change this tradition even if I wanted to."

This in an interesting case of representing a minority, that has been subject to much discrimination until very recently, in a more humanistic light. One may wonder if it has anything to do with the screenwriter Curt Siodmak being a victim of the Nazi policies, and having to escape his homeland, Germany, and move to the US, and therefore understanding the plights of being a minority.