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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'Drag Me to Hell's' poster: Is it really scary ... or really sexy?

May 29, 2009 | 12:53 pm

Drag-me-to-hell-poster-560x829 Going all the way back to the days when Fritz Lang had to flee Germany after Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels figured out that Lang's "Dr. Mabuse" thrillers were crammed with all sorts of not-entirely-hidden cautionary warnings about the evil, malevolent tyrant who was about to transform Germany into a truly evil empire, horror films have had a justified reputation for ruffling our feathers, for stoking our most unruly, subconscious urges and fears.

In horror films, there is always more to the images than meets the eye. That goes double for the slyly evocative one-sheet  for "Drag Me to Hell," the new Sam Raimi thriller from Universal Pictures that opens this weekend.

The other day I found myself staring at a row of "Drag Me to Hell" posters slapped on the side of a construction site in my neighborhood. The poster ostensibly offers up the riveting image of a young woman (played in the film by Allison Lohman) in the clutches of a multi-armed beast from the underworld, presumably dragging her off to its hellish lair. ("Christine Brown has a good job, a great boyfriend and a bright future," its tagline says, "But in three days, she's going to hell.")

But the longer I stared at the image, the more convinced I was that the poster contained a hidden, more tantalizing message. For starters, Lohman is dressed as if she were going out club hopping, wearing chic earrings, a black leather jacket and a silver necklace. Her hair shimmers with bright blond highlights. Not straight-to-hell attire at all. But what really grabs your attention is her expression. Take a long look: Instead of appearing fearful, her eyes are closed, her mouth is open wide, her head is thrown back, as if she were -- ahem -- in some sort of ecstasy, if not in a purely erotic manner, then in a "I Am Woman! Hear Me Roar!" kind of way.

The longer you stare, the more you wondered: If this is a horror film where she's supposed to be scared, why is it that she also appears sexually aroused? 

Worried that I might be reading too much into this, I called Terry Press, a marketing consultant who in her days as head of marketing at DreamWorks did some great posters for such horror films as "The Ring" and "What Lies Beneath." Did she see what I saw? "Of course," she said. "It's a great image. Just look at her. She doesn't look miserable. With that expression on her face, it looks like she's having a good time. I'd say it dials a lot more on the orgasmic side than on the horror side, which is exactly why it's so provocative. The way she looks in that poster, the title might as well be 'Drag Me Into Your Bedroom.' "

Press also pointed out that what made the poster so striking was the absence of any of the cliched images that usually accompany horror films -- no axes, saws or weapons of gore. "It's much more upscale," Press explains. "It doesn't feel like a cheesy slasher movie and with her perfect highlights, [Lohman] doesn't look like the typical horror movie tramp scuzzbag. If it conveys anything, it's saying, 'If this is how I look when I go to hell, it couldn't be so bad.' "

So is this what Universal was going for? Was sex really a big part of the equation? Keep reading:

To hear Adam Fogelson, Universal's head of marketing and distribution, tell it, the main idea behind the poster was to distance "Drag Me to Hell" from the grisly torture porn films that have largely dominated the horror genre in recent years. "We wanted to communicate the concept in a way that was exciting and scary, but also fun. There have been a lot of print images lately for woman-in-jeopardy films that just felt too gross and unpleasant." He searched for the right word: "Icky. Torture porn-like. We wanted to stay away from that as much as possible."

One of the poster images that reinforced the idea of ecstasy is the way the gold-flecked hands reaching up from the underworld aren't clawing or strangling Lohman -- if anything, they appear to be gently caressing her, with one hand around her shoulder, one hand lightly touching her necklace. As it turns out, this was as much the result of MPAA restrictions as any conscious artistic choice by Cold Open, the vendor Universal hired to help execute the poster design. 

"This is where you have a marriage of art and MPAA guidance," Fogelson says. "After you do a thousand one-sheets, you pretty much know that certain things are off limits. The MPAA was very concerned about where the hands were placed. They couldn't be around her neck or digging into her. She couldn't appear to be choked or hurt or tortured, so we had to stay away from any terrifying images that would make the film appear to be a brutal experience. I wouldn't want my 5-year-old seeing our poster and being disturbed by the images, so we're always careful about how things look."

OK, but what about the orgasmic look on her face? Was that a conscious choice? "We didn't set out to do that, to put a sexual look on her face," Fogelson says. "But we did set out to find a look that wasn't simply one of a terrorized and tortured woman. So the look you responded to -- that orgasmic quality -- probably came from our wanting to suggest that even if this woman is being grabbed by a demon from the underworld, you could still have a good time watching the movie."

He allowed a guarded chuckle. "I guess if she had that expression on her face and didn't have any clothes on, then the intent would've been different -- but that's not the case. We really just wanted people to understand that she wasn't going to suffer in a horrible way in the film."

As a movie marketer, Fogelson realizes that you have one quick second when people see your poster to convey an arresting image that will prompt people to stop and stare -- as Universal memorably did with its poster for "40-Year-Old Virgin" several years ago. As for "Drag Me to Hell," he concluded: "Fear and ecstasy -- especially sexual ecstasy -- can look very similar to each other, so if people are seeing both of those things in the poster, it means they're taking the time to think about the image, which in itself is a win-win for us."   

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