UPDATED! 6/2/09 2:54 p.m.
It is my happy duty to report that the first SLIFR Night at the Drive-in, which took place this past Saturday night at the Mission Tiki Drive-in, was, in my humble estimation, a rousing success. Much of that success had to do with the feature entertainment being as perfect for a gathering under the outdoor big screen as was Grindhouse over two years ago—more about Drag Me to Hell in a moment. But I think it had a whole lot more to do with being part of a genial and enthusiastic crowd of people, some friends, some virtual friends and readers of this blog whom I had never occasion to meet before, and many folks who responded to the open invite just because it sounded like it might be fun. And because of each and every one that came out to celebrate the drive-in with us Saturday, that’s exactly what it was.
Members of the Phantom Coaches Hearse Club get a good spot on the lot.
I arrived around 5:45, after discovering an annoying glitch in the directions I had provided to everyone that instructed drivers to turn down not the proper road to approach the theater from the back, but instead down a scary, dead-end alley from where there would seem to be, once you got down there, no safe or sure return. (Drag me to hell, indeed.) Fortunately, the folks who made the journey to Montclair that night were, to a driver, far smart enough to make the adjustment and figure out for themselves what I couldn’t manage to convey. By 6:00 I was setting up tables and chairs next to the evening’s very first arriving guest, the current president of the Phantom Coaches Hearse Club, Kerri and her husband (whose name I cannot recall, to my ultimate discredit), who parked next to my van and, as dusk approached, brought out their vintage Coleman oil-pump lantern (the kind that hisses as the fuel glides through its intricate machinery), which added immensely to the nighttime ambiance already brought to the darkening lot by their awesomely restored Caddy coffin wagon.
Paul Reilly anticipates the general reaction to the evening's second feature. In the ever-resonating words of Marty Feldman, coulda been worse-- coulda been rainin'!
The next guest to arrive was Anne Thompson, who has fast become one of the favorite people I’ve met in the world of film blogging and criticism. She is extremely warm and friendly, as well as an engaging conversationalist, and the two times I’ve met her she has been so welcoming to me that it was a real honor to be able to welcome her in a similar fashion. Anne made it a family affair by attending our little soiree with her daughter Nora and husband David Chute, whose writing I have respected for many years in Film Comment, the Village Voice and countless other publications (many of which also provided my introduction to Anne’s work). David is (not much of a surprise here) a very gregarious and quick-witted fellow and a lot of fun to spend time with at a drive-in. The evening afforded me several opportunities to step back and privately marvel that I was here in this wonderful, casual situation with two people I never thought I’d chance to meet, let alone see a movie with, and their presence added a unique and special element to the evening.
Pictured (from left): Robert Fiore, videographer Ruben, Anne Thompson, Erin Maher and friends, Christian Brackett, Michelle Brien
But then you know what? So did the entire cast of characters. They are, in no particular order, most excellent friend Andy Torres, his son Will and stepson Christian Brackett; an old pal from the early days of closed-captioning, Erin Maher, who brought along her sisters and her writing partner, five in all; SLIFR readers Chris Oliver, along with his lovely wife, and Robert Fiore, neither of whom I had ever met; friend and Internet radio king Paul Reilly, who brought with him one of my favorite people, Michelle Brien (who brought along two friends too!); Mike Goldstein and his son Ben, who heard about the party through L.A. Observed; co-workers and exceptional good sports Kim Braasch and Sean Newcombe (Newk, keep repeating to yourself, it’s only a movie… it’s only a movie…); the lovely and sweet-spirited Sammi Chang and her husband David (a prize-winner, but more about that in a second); SLIFR reader Charlie Dicus, who I managed to miss, dammit, although I did briefly see one of his friends— Nayla, I believe it was?— just before the movie started (Charlie, where‘d y’all go during intermission?); longtime writer pal Bob Westal; my fellow traveler in Dodger fandom, screenwriter Mike Werb, easily one of the nicest, friendliest people I know, and his partner, the exceptionally keen Brian Roskam; my pal Sal’s cousin Ruben, who brought a carload out to join in the fun and served as the official videographer of the event; and several more members of the Phantom Coaches car club, who did VERY well in the prize giveaways— Sophie, Eric, Dee, Bobbie, Judas Trina, Kay Eddie and Diane Fiorelli, Lorin, Terri, Robert. You guys were so much fun and added so much to perfect the atmosphere of the surroundings with your cars. Thanks for coming!
(I also have to acknowledge the four folks who could not be in attendance, the presence of whom would have made an already exceptional night even better: my wife Patty, who made the altogether reasonable decision to shield herself and our daughters from the expected agonies that would befall Alison Lohman this night; old drive-in pal Katie, a.k.a. psaga, who withstood the grisly horrors of Earth Day with me and who would have had the time of her life with us on Saturday night; my fine friend Don Mancini, with whom I’ve already discussed the movie and with whom I can’t wait to dig into it again; and my best friend, Bruce, who I know will thrill to DMTH no matter where he sees it, but who would have loved it even more if he’d been outside with us.)
From left, Michelle Brien, Mike Werb and Robert Fiore anticipate the chills of the movie, as well as the literal chills of a cool not-quite-summer night, in the darkest minutes before being dragged to hell.
David Chute models his exclusive Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule T-shirt, which I don't think I remembered to press him to wear around the UCLA campus-- Exposure! Exposure! (Please forgive the photographer unfamiliar with his new camera-- me-- for the blurry image.)
As we all began to coalesce around the general area near the front of the lot, get our spots laid out, migrate back and forth from there to the snack bar and back, and settle in as dusk and the movie grew nearer, I really began to appreciate the fact that so many people—all in all, nearly 40—came together to share this movie experience, and I was very honored that it happened under my watch. It was a real thrill to look around and see a real party atmosphere taking shape—it really did provide a great lead-in for the high spirited movie we were about to see. Just before show time, we all gathered around the general area where most everyone was parked, with just enough time for me to hold a drawing for some Drag Me to Hell-Sam Raimi-related prizes. Sammi’s husband David picked up a Three Stooges DVD set in a lunchbox container (the Stooges being an obvious influence on the style of slapstick that has been a linchpin of Raimi’s visual style since Evil Dead 2); there were a couple of other cool DVDs—quadruple features from Warner Bros. including a Hammer Dracula foursome that was highly coveted, and one of Raimi’s amusing western pastiche The Quick and the Dead; a couple of very nice Drag Me to Hell one-sheets; and several one-of-a-kind, get ‘em while they’re hot Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule T-shirts! (David Chute is modeling his in the picture above, and I’m very pleased that Anne and Brian took home the others.)
Apparently Satan himself stuck a claw in for a little taste (lower right-hand corner) before the rest of us got a chance! (Photo courtesy of Mike Werb)
And with mere minutes to go before show time, as I was handing out prizes, Brian and Mike were cutting slices of the evening’s customized dessert, a spectacular Drag Me to Hell chocolate cake with strawberry and custard filling that I had specially made for the occasion by the fine folks at Portos Bakery. These ingenious cake artists lasered an edible image of the movie’s one-sheet art, taken from a .jpg, onto the top of the cake, instantly creating a sugary conversation piece that was enjoyed by all, except me—no sugar allowed! I did get some of that orange border frosting on my fingers, however, and I’m here to tell you it puts the stain-making properties of Cheetos to shame. (One of my favorite overheard comments of the evening came as a retort to a suggestion that Universal would be impressed by the unique marketing possibility created with the cake—more likely, said the unknown quipster, they'd be lightning-quick to slap me with a cease and desist order.)
Once the lights of the sky were properly dimmed, it was time for the feature attraction. Speaking as a big fan of Evil Dead 2, but one who was quite indifferent to Raimi’s other comic book horror movies, including the original Evil Dead and also Darkman and particularly Army of Darkness, I was unable to quell the involuntary impulse to temper my excitement as the rave reviews for Drag Me to Hell began to pile up with my memories of dissatisfaction with Raimi films past. I happen to think (and still do) that his adaptation of Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan is the director’s best movie, but nothing that has come since Raimi’s Hollywood arrival has come close to the sheer go-for-broke entertainment value of Evil Dead 2. Until this new movie.
Drag Me To Hell is about as much rollicking, demonically-bent, condemned-by-the-Church fun as could reasonably be expected, and I say that without registering even a smidgen of disappointment. For once the raves were right. The movie takes great black-comic pleasure laying out in delicious detail exactly why it’s not a good idea to deny an extension on a loan to a milky-eyed old lady with a thick Eastern European accent and very bad dentures. The woman (Lorna Raver) who makes her way to the desk of up-and-coming banker Lohman is either pure evil or has an even worse dental plan than she does a relationship with her lending institution. But Lohman takes cues from her boss (David Paymer) that suggest only those who can make the tough decisions will make the short list of promotion candidates, and soon Lohman, with a queasy corporate smile, decides to deny the woman her extension. One humiliating, horrifying display in the bank office leads to an even more horrifying encounter between Lohman and Raver in the bank’s underground parking garage, and we’re off and running. The woman visits a curse on Lohman (“Soon it will be you who will be begging to me!”) that consists of a day or two being toyed with by a demon from hell before being forced to take the titular subterranean trip for all eternity, and the great perverse joy that Raimi’s movie offers is in watching him pull out all the stops as that process of being toyed with escalates. It’s a joy directly connected to being in the hands of someone whose command of the medium is so confident that each blunt shock, each inspired gross-out, comes gilded with an unexpected frisson of style that burns the shocks into your memory and makes you rediscover the exquisite pleasure of a good scream. (The single shot where we slowly become aware of the old woman’s presence in the back seat of Lohman’s car in that parking garage is a small masterpiece of slow-revealing terror that will reconnect you with the childlike sensation of not being able to get your hands up over your face fast enough, while being unable to resist the temptation to peek at the same time.)
For all the praise Raimi has received for his mastery as a director of comic horror, of set pieces that recall his own Three Stooges-influenced style of go-for-broke, kitchen-sink comedy (this is, after all, a movie featuring a séance at one point presided over by a demonic talking goat-- Drag Me to Hell’s most obvious link to the spirit of Evil Dead 2), not much has really been said about his facility as an architect of sustained mood and suggestive imagery. There are sequences midway through this movie that would make Val Lewton, Robert Wise and Jacques Tourneur stand up and salute, so effective is Raimi’s employment of shadowy night creatures and well-timed bumps (and creaks, and groans) in the night. It's not really the director's game to make us worry about whether Lohman will survive her various ordeals at this stage—we know she will, because the supposedly inevitable transport to hell is not scheduled, according to the movie’s legend, until the third day. So Raimi’s movie becomes not a saga of moment-to-moment survival, but instead a showcase for all the ways in which Lamia, the demon coming after this poor, not entirely innocent girl, chooses to fuck with her head and her body, particularly her poor abused mouth, which takes in and spews out an incredible array of disgusting substances over the course of the playing out of the curse.
Raimi’s achievement here as a writer (the movie was produced from a long-shelved script by the director and his brother Ivan) is not so much in the movie’s stake in originality, or its much-ballyhooed connection to the current zeitgeist of economic despair—as one writer has observed, our real-life dire straits were precipitated not by stinginess and rigidity on the part of banks, but instead by giving away too much credit and too many loans—but instead its attendance to storytelling detail. Hints both visual and in the dialogue and character development are dropped throughout as to the thematic significance of money, and those hints come roaring back to the forefront of importance when we least expect it. (If you can fully anticipate how Lohman’s generically underwritten, coin-collecting Boyfriend X, played with charm by Justin Long, will figure into the fate of his girlfriend, whom he supports even though he thinks she’s delusional, then you’re a sharper viewer than I.) And Raimi takes a huge gamble regarding the limits of audience identification with his put-upon heroine when at one point she must decide whether or not to follow an instruction manual given to her by a consulting psychic (Deelip Rao) entitled The Sacrifice of Animals Toward the Appeasing of Deities. (I think he gets away with it and enriches the movie’s tangential theme of having to deal with owning up to the possibly damning ramifications of one’s own decisions in the process.)
The bottom line is, if you have any fondness for the horror genre, you will likely greet Drag Me to Hell as some kind of miracle. The movie is spectacularly good, very clever, very scary, and despite all the wild flights of imagination it never succumbs to becoming the big CGI blowout that most movies of this kind thunder inevitably toward, with little regard to whether the end result is actually in any way frightening. With Drag Me to Hell Raimi honors the best this EC Comics-influenced genre has ever had to offer. The movie is funny-scary right up to the last frame.
I will say, though, I am beyond surprised that Drag Me to Hell has a PG-13 rating. I don’t think it’s a reactionary, pooh-poohing kind of a thing to observe that the world of what constitutes a PG-13 these days is noticeably different than it was in 1984, when Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and its relatively grotesque imagery (everything from ripping a beating heart out of a man’s chest to being gleefully served a bowlful of chilled monkey brains) got concerned citizens like Jack Valenti all steamy under the collar and inspired the MPAA to create the subdivision of the “parental guidance” rating. Even though Drag Me to Hell operates in very much the same adolescent world of cheap thrills and dirty laughs by way of variations on every gross-out in a kid’s imaginary arsenal, the truth is, over the distance of 25 years now Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a cake walk (and a Disneyland ride), graphic images-wise, compared to Raimi’s new movie, a movie I think any sane person, despite the lack of actual bloodletting, would have rated R.
It's my suspicion that the MPAA bowed down to Universal in deference to Sam Raimi's Spider-Man box-office clout and went wa-a-a-a-ay easy on this film, expecting that the PG-13 would induce greater crowds at the box office. What “they” (meaning the MPAA and the marketing suits at Universal) seem to have misunderstood is how a movie marketed as a horror comedy, even one whose humor is as black as it is here, is apparently automatically less appealing to the core horror crowd, who much prefer the type of sadism unmarred by a sense of humor that is usually associated with a hard R. (The movie’s fourth-place showing, behind Up and two other week-old movies-- Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian and Terminator: Salvation-- seems to bear this theory out.) So the movie comes out, does less well than expected, theoretically because of the resistance of the core horror audience to what they perceive as a watered-down movie due to the rating, and everybody on the studio lot ends up scratching their heads over their misfortune. A friend of mine insists that playing up the horror-comedy angle is death to a movie’s chances with ticket-buyers these days, and it’s hard to disagree—I personally know at least three people who begged off seeing the movie, despite the near-across-the board raves, based entirely on that PG-13 and the idea that if it was funny, then how could it be scary?
If the MPAA had been honest, with themselves, with Raimi, and with the movie, it would have rated the movie appropriately, the movie would have gotten the same raves, and I suspect it would have done better at the box office, as The Strangers did almost a year ago even with a more restrictive rating. Whatever it is rated, Drag Me to Hell is a terrific movie, but I think it's fundamentally dishonest that it has been rated PG-13 by those ever-vigilant keepers of the scrolls of parental guidance. If any other movie not directed by the guy who made Sony over a billion dollars with the Spider-Man series had the kind of creative splatter, projectile vomiting, oral violation and general spirit of demonic manifestation that is the hallmark of this movie, it would have been an automatic R. For crying out loud, Raimi's own Evil Dead 2, Darkman and Army of Darkness were all rated R, back in the day when Sam Raimi was a box-office nobody and no one had anything at stake in what his next movie might be, and not one of those movies was as grim and visually grisly as this one. (Well, maybe Evil Dead 2, but the comic element in that one was even more pronounced than it is here.)
Any parent should be smart enough not to let their impressionable children anywhere near a movie called Drag Me to Hell and to not take a corrupt institution like the MPAA’s word for anything about its content. But I wonder if there might not be grown adults who will barrel into the movie ill-prepared by the relatively innocuously connotations of the PG-13 for the slam-bang horror fest they’ll be subjected to, and stumble out of it dazed and confused by the level of genuine shocks Raimi delivers while the rest of us are chortling and screaming and not daring to look up out of our popcorn bags.
At 1:00 a.m., the screen #1 projector at the Mission Tiki fires up for the evening's second showing of Drag Me To Hell and bids the hearty folks who stayed for the evening's second feature, Angels and Demons, a fond farewell.
Once again, thanks so much to everybody who made going to Hell this past Saturday night such a blast. To those of you who wrote in wishing you could have been there, I hope this report brings a little of it home to you and will inspire you to somehow join us for the next one. (I’ve got a very good idea, but it all depends on whether or not there’s a drive-in screen nearby that will be showing Black Dynamite.) Most of all, it’s nice to know there are so many genuinely fine people who read this blog and would choose to share their Saturday evening with me for this event. I am honored and so glad that the memory of this fun night will thankfully last much longer than the actual event. (I even had a nightmare Saturday night after I got home, and it was almost as much fun as the movie!) Thanks for reading and coming out, everybody. In the immortal words of Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby, let’s do it again… real soon!
UPDATE! 6/2/09 2:54 p.m.
Ruben, the videographer for the SLIFR Night at the Drive-in, has turned in his interpretation of the evening’s events, and as a certain beloved late-night vampire TV host might have said, “This one is re-e-e-eally sc-a-a-r-r-r-ry, folks!” Nice production values and maximum fright is squeezed out of this 4½-minute program which documents the early twilight portion of our fun evening under the stars. Why, there’s even footage of Anne snapping a pic of me holding the cake! And lots of frightening hearse footage too-- FNLRIDE, indeed! A good time was scared up by all, and now we’ve got the evidence to prove it… unto all eternity. Many thanks to Ruben and Sal Gomez of the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society for taking on the assignment of this important historical document. Nice job, demons!