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Sam Raimi presents 'Drag Me to Hell' at SXSW

March 16, 2009 |  5:16 pm

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For the second half of its media-friendly SXSW double header Sunday night, Universal Pictures bused a group of print and online journalists from the screening of footage of Sacha Baron Cohen’s "Bruno" to a work-in-progress screening of Sam Raimi’s "Drag Me to Hell." Billed as the director’s return to his comedic horror roots after his sojourn behind the mega-budget blockbuster "Spider-Man" pictures, the film generated an atmosphere around the Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas, that was charged with excitement. Prior to the screening, the fan-heavy crowd was properly pumped with anticipation.

About 30 minutes after the film’s scheduled midnight start time, festival producer Janet Pierson introduced local Internet impresario Harry Knowles, who worked up the crowd before bringing out Raimi. As the filmmaker walked on, he executed a perfectly timed pratfall, splaying himself across the stage. After a few hammy bits of business involving pieces of paper of varying sizes, a fake letter ejecting him from his hotel and getting his tie caught up in his glasses, Raimi introduced his brother and co-writer, Ivan Raimi, and producer Grant Curtis. He then thanked the crowd and began the show.

In the film, Alison Lohman plays a bank loan officer desperate for a promotion to prove to the ritzy parents of her boyfriend (Justin Long) that she is more than just a simple farm girl. Hoping to impress her boss, she denies an old woman an extension on her mortgage and the woman lays a curse on her. Lohman spends the rest of the film trying to fight off the demon that is coming for her soul.

The film is something of an old-fashioned scare fest, and those worried that the PG-13 rating may somehow render it neutered need not fret. Raimi packs the film with plenty of jumps and moments of genuine suspense, often lightened by his impish sense of humor. Never before has a light, lacey handkerchief been portrayed as such a portentous beacon of evil. Nor has such a disconcerting variety of fluids and solids gushed forth — in the film’s most outrageous running gag — into and out of the mouths of its main characters, including blood, vomit, maggots, an arm, a ruler, an evil spirit and a kitten.

Twice during the screening the crowd burst into applause as a set-piece wrapped up. Also, a live bird — or was it a bat? — swooped past the screen a couple times as the film was in progress. To call "Drag Me to Hell" — playful, spirited and packed with lighthearted scares — a return to form is unfair, as Sam Raimi has never particularly been off his game. A cult filmmaker who has simply established a very, very large following, Raimi has returned from his forays into the mainstream all the more dedicated to crafting pop fantasias brimming with enthusiasm and a giddy delight.

— Mark Olsen

Photo: Universal Pictures

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