Sunday, October 18, 2009

Demonic Ambitions

Fall is upon us and Halloween approaches! I rented the Blu-Ray of the original “Halloween” and several other scary flicks to get in the mood and will cap off the month seeing the original “Psycho” accompanied by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra- good times!

In ‘Audience of One ‘ director Mike Jacobs shows us something pretty scary- real-life religious fanaticism which is growing by leaps and bounds in this country. In uncertain times it’s comforting to have religion, however when it stops being a personal expression of spirituality and goes all cultish it is downright dangerous. Folks who believe that they are on a “mission from God” ala the “Blues Brothers” will have no problem causing all sorts of mayhem since anyone against them must be “the devil”. Working Jim Jones’ old hood, Pastor Richard Gazowsky is introduced to us as a charismatic leader who seems harmless at first as he preaches the word to his San Francisco congregation. We are told that he didn’t see his first film “The Lion King” until he was 40, but that God then told him to make a film (“Star Wars meets The Ten Commandments”) and lo the misadventures begin!

A delusional man pressing his family and parishioners to make a film that he says has 200 million in financing for is fascinating but also a little sad. Church collections don’t go to help the unfortunate but instead fund massive film expenses such as creating unnecessarily elaborate costumes. Volunteers are pressed into crew and talent positions putting in long workdays where safety precautions are non-existent. This is kind of like the doc “Burden of Dreams” about the madness of director Werner Herzog while making “Fitzcarraldo'” with the important exception that Herzog is a great filmmaker, Gazowksy is just a fool. Even late in the film as we see that his fiasco has no funding and he is forcing his studio landlord (the city of San Franciso) to sue him for his back rent, he attends a filmmakers trade show promising vendors that he is planning on buying their high end equipment. In short he has no conscience. Why should he? God talks directly to him. Kind of like “Bowfinger” meets “Jesus Camp”.

As I’ve said before here, I hate the cinema of sadism that passes as horror. Splatter and gore has hardcore followers but I can’t help to think that it’s just not a good thing to get such pleasure watching people get tortured and killed. It reminds me too much of how Rome fell with its residents using death as entertainment in the Coliseum (Though I did like “Gladiator” which makes me a bit of a hypocrite).

Sam Raimi on the other hand, gave us the “Evil Deadtrilogy back in the eighties and early nineties, films that mixed the spookiness of folklore with rollercoaster thrills shot like great slapstick ala “An American Werewolf in London”. These films were scary fun and became better as the budgets went up. Raimi went on to do a respectable indie, “A Simple Plan” before moving on up to the big budget “Spidermanseries. Obviously his brother and he had an old spooky script that they never made and Raimi decided to dust it off and give his fans a little bit of retro horror. I’m glad he did.

In “Drag Me to Hell” he shows his ability to take all of the scariness of that original haunted wooded cabin and bring it to a normal suburban home in Southern California transforming ordinary objects into instruments of fear: a stapler, a handkerchief, a coin, a button, a ruler even a piece of cake. Yes a piece of cake – did you ever eye up a delicious pastry when dieting? Raimi and the demons at his disposal know of these inner conflicts.

Our heroine, bank loan officer Christine (Alison Lohman), is a former obese farm girl from a broken home who wrestles these inner demons as she reinvents herself in LA. When her relationship and career seem troubled, the evil spirits channel her fear of eating; the arm of a demonic woman, a fly, embalming liquid, maggots and blood all make their way into her mouth at some point in this flick. It all begins with her fixation on an old gypsy womans’ dirty dentures that she observes as she is trying to decide whether to give her another extension on her home loan. Being exploited by her boss (David Paymer) as she vies for a promotion (he has her bring him and her rival food of course) she is forced into deciding to evict this old woman, Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), which sets off the action as she is then attacked, cursed and terrorized.

Raimi gives us plenty of shout-outs to the ‘Evil Dead’ films including using his trademark 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88, a visual reference to the original poster art, cartoon violence in an old shed and Christine’s boyfriend (Justin Long, the Mac pitchman seen using Mac products) making a passing reference that he has a cabin in the woods. The film even opens with an 80’s era logo for Universal. A drawback is the flat acting by the young actors in the leads; old-timers Raver and Paymer fare much better. Lohman, Long and Dileep Rao (as the worlds' most knowledgeable spiritualist) all seem to play the film straight rather than give it the subtle twist of camp that it needed. Lohman especially seems more of a dullard than an ambitious and then horrified woman. A Bruce Campbell cameo also would have rocked it. This is nitpicky of course – this film as I witnessed makes men swear in disbelief and women scream in fright and that’s a lot of fun in the serious world of mass marketed torture porn. A definition of Irish blarney is when you can tell someone to go to hell and have them anticipate the trip. Raimi still has the charm.