Horror

The Woman in Black (James Watkins, UK, 2012)

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The Woman in Black

*Major Spoiler*

Daniel Radcliffe is surprisingly good as Arthur Kipps, the young solicitor whose life is unraveling due to the death of his wife in childbirth. He goes up North and into a haunted house. Every time ‘The Woman in Black’ is seen, a child dies. Radcliffe finds the reasons for this and hopes to put an end to it by reuniting ‘The Woman in Black’ with the child that was taken away from her (her revenge for her child being taken away from her is to take other people’s children). However, it doesn’t work and at the end Radcliff dies with his child. There is some very good direction by James Watkins. I particularly like the device that Radcliffe’s p.o.v doesn’t see exactly what we do until the end. Those initial moments where we see what he doesn’t are what begin the suspense and scariness in a film that barely throws a chill during the first half. The cinematography by Tim Maurice Jones is lovely, particularly the helicopter shots where you see them kind of imprisoned in this desolately beautiful landscape.  Screenplay is credited to Jane Goldman and is based on Susan Hill’s famous novel. I liked it but not as much as my friends did.

José Arroyo

The House at the End of the Street (Max Tonderai, USA, 2012)

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A mother (Elizabeth Shue) and daughter (Jennifer Lawrence) move to a different place to start a new life together. The mother has until now been neglectful. Each has something to prove to the other. Their new home is near a semi-deserted house where the son (Max Theriot) of a family who were actually murdered by their own daughter lives. As The House at the End of the Street is teen-horror, Jennifer Lawrence confronts all the clichés of the genre; she encounters the cool crowd but rejects the sex and drugs; the town bullies victimize the object of her affection etc. Of course, everything is not as it seems and nothing is surprising.

Of interest is the use of meth (which I take to be used as a metaphor for the state of American culture in many works across film and television at the moment, most famously of course in Breaking Bad), again shown here as the reason why the parents are too zombified to notice one of their children has fallen of a swing. The other issue of interest, this time in particular relation to Jennifer Lawrence films, is the extent to which dead, distracted or absent mothers figure (In The Hunger Games and Winter’s Bone they’re both present and absent (due to mental problems and meth respectively). Here Elizabeth Shue is the woman who was a slutty party girl in her youth, has been a neglectful mother and wants to make it up all in one go. The film would seem to be a vindication for her but for the coda where you see the fault for the villain becoming a villain is that his mother treats him like a girl, forces him to be the Carrie-Anne whose death was caused by her own neglect.

The film, on the surface at least, seems to have very reactionary politics. At one level it seems to say that the bullying, prejudiced, violent neighbours had been right about the boy who lived down the street thus giving them a reason for their vile behavior (whilst making those who defended him and who died seem to deserve what came to them). It’s a stupid and confused film redeemed only by Lawrence and Shue; Theriot is fine but could have done more with the role (though he is always interesting to look at).

 

José Arroyo

The Spiral Staircase. (Robert Siodmak, USA, 1945)

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The Spiral staircase 1946

 

 

A High-Concept film avant la lettre. There’s a serial killer on the loose in a small New England town early into the 20th-Century. The killer generally chooses women with some kind of imperfection, and our heroine, Dorothy McGuire, a maid who works in a mansion for a rich family, is mute. The film delights with every Gothic thriller cliché in the book: an orphaned heroine in an overstuffed mansion full of spiral staircases and dark corners, a Freudian explanation to McGuire’s muteness, music that positively telegraphs what you’re meant to feel, a portentous Surreal dream sequence, a camera that takes you right into the killer’s eye but not quite into his mind(at least until the end),  a McGuffin, candle-lights that blow out, streaming wind, pouring rain, dark cellars, and a narrative that keeps taking you down false-corridors but never quite cheats. The question is not whether the killer will get the star; nobody kills the star in a big-budget studio film in 1945 Hollywood.  Instead the film taunts and teases us to wonder who the killer might be and when exactly the star will scream.

The cast is quite good if not quite top grade (Dorothy McGuire and George Brent instead of, say, Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer). McGuire is effective if a bit out of her league; Brent is Brent no matter what league he’s in; and there’s a reason we no longer remember Kent Smith and Gordon Oliver, even after playing   important roles such as here. The rest of the supporting cast, however, is a film buff’s delight (Elsa Lanchester as the scullery maid that likes her nip of brandy, Ethel Barrymore as a bed-ridden matron who’s handy with a gun; Rhonda Fleming, before she became the Technicolor hottie with the flaming red hair in low-budget spectacles, as, I kid you not, a secretary).

The real star, however, is director Robert Siodmak: his camera movements alone are a thrill to see; they creep, glide, close in, pay attention, sweep, peek, penetrate; all in wonderful compositions that will elicit awe and joy in those who can appreciate them. Nicholas Musuruca, who was also dop on Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, USA, 1942) and Out of the Past (Tourneur again, USA, 1947), produces wonderful work on camera here as well. A classic which perhaps has been slightly overlooked because it begs comparison with Hitchock’s work, indeed solicits it, his influence is everywhere evident here, and slightly falls short.

It’s worth noting here that I paid £7.40 to see it at the Electric Cinema in Birmingham where they showed it in what seemed a not-very-good DVD and had to be told-off by me because they were showing it in the wrong ratio.

It might also be worth noting that when the cinema is very dark (as it should be and as the Electric was) when sparse, high contrast, quasi-noir lighting like this goes very dark, as the eye focuses on the source of light, the image seems to expand into wide-screen. I wonder if this is just my own personal perception or if the experience is more widespread.

José Arroyo

Kiss of the Damned (Xan Cassavetes, USA, 2012)

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A film buff’s delight, and not only because of the director’s parentage (John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands for those of you who might not yet know). The film begins with some of the narration from Vittorio De Sica’s Indescretion of an American Wife (a.k.a. Terminal Station, USA/ Italy, 1953) with Jennifer Jones expressing her loneliness and her need whilst visually we’re introduced to a handsomel house in Connecticut and a lovely woman, Djuna (Joséphine de la Baume) who evokes some of the beautiful porcelain vacuity of an Ursula Andress or a Sharon Stone.

Djuna meets Paolo (Milo Ventimiglio) in a video store showing Algiers (John Cromwell, USA, 1938) with Hedy Lamarr. He drinks scotch and writes arty screenplays that don’t sell. At a bar, they fall for each other but she can’t see him: she’s got an ‘illness’. He pursues her, wants her; he longs for the danger and excitement he knows she can provide. He follows her to her house and there’s a brilliant scene where she keeps the door chain on, they kiss, the kiss is filmed from above in a striking composition made up of a rectangle of light formed by the partly opened door, but then he recoils in pain, looks through the side of the door and sees her fangs reflected in the mirror (this is a vampire film that does not respect all vampire lore).

He doesn’t quite believe that she can really be a vampire so she gets him to tie her to the bed with enormous silver chains, turn her on and wait for the fangs to come out. The chains ensure his safety but he doesn’t want to be safe and removes them. The scene is delirious and ludicrous and sexy and something else too: one gets a sense that sex can be bloody and dangerous and all the more desirable for that. This is rendered even more perverse by the insertion of the wonderful scene from  Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana where Don Jaime (Fernando Rey) drugs his niece Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) and plans to rape her whilst a little girl climbs a tree to get a better view.

Needless to say Djuna and Paolo fall in love. She ‘turns’ him and introduces him to her coterie of chic vampires led by Xenia (Anna Mouglalis), the queen of the ‘international clan’ who is a star actress longing for human applause and whose house they are staying at. The vampires talk about human blood substitutes, the beluga of ethically sourced platelets and True Blood whilst listening to Chopin. She’s clearly introduced him to a glamorous witty world he’d never have had access to and everything seems to be going swimmingly until Djuna’s sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida, she of the frank, gritty, somewhat coarse, rather wonderful Catherine Breillat films) arrives. Mimi is hungry, rapacious, amoral: there’s a wonderful scene where she tries to manipulate Xenia by presenting her with a fan, a virgin, and making sure her water glass is nicked so as to draw blood.  Can Xenia resist? Can Paolo resist Mimi?

All of this is filmed as a kind of homage to Hammer Horror and Italian giallo, with particular reference to Dario Argento. Everything about the film seems slightly off, other-worldly, consciously fake and slightly stilted; a feeling exacerbated by everyone except Ventimiglio and Michael Rapaport (wonderful as a sweaty, rapacious agent) seeming to speak their lines phonetically. The music too, though evidently composed for the film, also evokes the cinema Kiss of the Damned renders homage to. It’s nice to see a vampire film that’s once more about romance, loneliness, violence and the polymorphousness and mutability of desire.

In Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, a Professor of Greek tells his students, ‘Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instants, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves…If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face: let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn’ (pp.44-45).

The characters in Kiss of the Damned  feel as the professor does even as they try to take control of themselves. However, the film itself suffers from also reining itself in by genre, convention, allusion and quotation. It sometimes seems more concerned with expressing its particular themes through an evocation of a period and a genre, to exist tightly locked into a matrix of allusion, than to elicit the raw pleasures audiences that go to genre films expect. Kiss  of the Damned has sex, gore, desire and romance; and it does thrill – just not enough: not enough terror, not enough beauty.

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José Arroyo

World War Z (Marc Foster, USA, 2013)

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It’s so much better than I expected, so intelligent and visually impressive that I almost had to remind myself that World War Z  isn’t quite good. The film is about zombies — that’s what finally got me to the cinema. They’re everywhere at the moment and I like them in almost all their variations: on TV in the wonderful The Walking Dead (created by Frank Darabont, USA, AMC, 2010-); as quasi-teen romantic horror played for laughs in Warm Bodies (Jonathan Levine, USA, 2013); in foreign films, even from Cuba, such as Juan of the Dead/ Juan de los Muertos (Alejandro Brugés, Cuba, 2011) and even in the most far-out variations such as The Happiness of the Katakuris [Takashi Miike, Japan, admittedly a while ago, 2001) — musical zombie films from Japan anyone? Just as interestingly, they’ve become a political symbol for the Chilean Student Movement, with masses of students protesting against the government dressed as zombies doing gigantic flash-mobs to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’.

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This particular take on zombies is based on Max Brooks wonderful 2006 novel, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War but is very different to it. Brooks’ book has no central protagonist but is instead structured like Studs Terkel’s classic books on World Word II and the Depression such as Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. The influence is clear from the title of the books alone and Brooks’ novel is indeed structured as an oral history of the Zombie War, told by different survivors of it from different countries and from different walks of life. The idea is to evoke with panoramic sweep yet retain all the particularities; to not lose sight of the big picture but to also focus on people. This permits Brooks in his novel to allow for  allegory whilst also keeping a sharp eye on narrative and action. One can see why the book was so attractive to producers (though its natural form seems to be more as a basis for an HBO series than what is permissible in feature film form).

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Film buffs may be interested in knowing that Brooks is the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft. Zombie fanatics will already know about his also being the author of The Zombie Survival Guide. What is interesting to me about Brooks in relation to the film is that he’s also written for comic books such as The Extinction Parade and even new takes on established franchises such as his Hearts and Minds graphic novel in the G.I.Joe franchise. What interests me about Brooks’ work here, his curt no-nonsense noir dialogue, the political point-of-view necessary for allegory and critique, the brutal, corrupt world in which all is not yet hopeless, the superb marriage of story/action/dialogue evident in his work for comic books, is only as a measure of the extent to which it is absent in the movie of World War Z.

2013-07-01 20.11.09Marc Foster’s take on World War Z does make you glad that you are watching it in a cinema and does seem to provide what a smaller screen can’t quite, a travelogue of spectacular disasters in various, and variously exotic, parts of the world — those masses of zombies swarming, climbing on top of each other like ants jacked up on methamphetamines, jumping into cars and even planes- — sometimes in really thrilling areal shots that reveal a world unraveling — whilst being able to see every element of these composition of disaster in great detail. You can definitely see where the money went. (estimated cost is  $190 million after tax breaks).

It’s not boring either. The narrative has a melodramatic basis: Gerry Lane’s (Brad Pitt)  family is being sheltered only because of his skills; and his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and two girls are under threat not only from the zombies but from the authorities, as they are in an ‘essential-personnel-only’ facility. Their  presence in the shelter is conditional on Brad’s continuing existence and eventual success.

In ‘Brad’s War’, a very interesting cover story on the troubled production of the film that made the cover of the June issue of Vanity Fair, Laura M. Helson tells us ‘What the ending of World War Z needed was for its hero to be re-united with his wife and children’ According to Helson,  when screenwriter Damon Lindeloff was asked in to view a 72 minute rough- cut of the picture that didn’t work and to offer some possible solutions, he noted that, “Lane (Brad Pitt) has to ‘save the world’ to get back to his family,” said Lindelof, adding, “It is an emotional task.”

However, though the family is central to the film’s functioning as melodrama, World War Z never puts what family might really mean to the test:  What would have happened if his wife had been rendered a zombie and was on the verge of converting his child, what would he do? or, if both of his children where to be converted and he could only choose one?

The film doesn’t want to rock the boat too much. And because it doesn’t, it is never once as moving or as complex in terms of human feeling of survival, loss, and transformation as various episodes of AMC’s Walking Dead . The series tangled with really important questions (what is society? What is community? What is it to be human? What does it mean to love? What is morality? How does one live ethically in a chaotic world filled with disasters?) that this film, busy as it is with its pile-up of disasters, doesn’t even begin to broach.

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World War Z  has a nice central idea; that survival depends on movement and change; but if films don’t work emotionally, they simply don’t work, no matter how much they cost.  This particular film works in terms of immediate sensation rather than of depth or complexity of feeling; though here even the sensational elements succeed only up to a point: it’s only mildly scare, a little creepy, somewhat horrifying; it’s the kind of zombie film people who don’t like zombie films will enjoy, which I suppose is the kind of audience a film budgeted at World War Z’s level is aiming for.

There is no question that it is spectacular, and that it has some terrific set-pieces such as the zombies on a plane (which could be the basis for an entire, very exciting film). But overall, I found it much better than I had expected and then not as good as it had led me to hope. Pitt is effective and has a very good moment when his eyes well with emotion at the thought of never seeing his daughters again. But it’s almost the only time we get a hint of anything happening underneath his practical façade (contrast Pitt’s performance here to Andrew Lincoln’s in The Walking Dead). As an actor, Pitt is a little like World War Z is as a film: all externals, spectacular to look at, moves thrillingly, but with something unfathomable and likely to be blank under the surface.

…And yet, as David Denby so interestingly notes in his New Yorker review in the July1, 2013 issue, ”the movie…evokes  the hectic density of modern life; it stirs fears of plague and anarchy, and the feeling everything is constantly accelerating. At times, it has the tone and tempo of a panic…The zombies aren’t like us; they are us, just degraded a little’. That sense of the film being a refraction of who we think  we are; and  also a refraction of how the world we live in makes us feel, is part of what makes it so interesting; much more interesting than one initially thought.

José Arroyo

Dark Shadows (Tim Burton, USA, 2012)

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The dullest Tim Burton film I can remember. It is visually handsome but it didn’t seem as sumptuously textured as most of his others films (Edward Scissorhands,  his Batman films); it looks expensive but doesn’t feel it; maybe the projection, or the use of digital, or the new type of effects works against the warmly expensive glow a big-budget production usually suffuses an audience with. You know this cost a fortune but it feels cheap: a creaky adaptation of a not-too-well remembered TV show. It’s interesting in that it somehow seems to signal that the knowing ironic distance that has passed for a kind of charm in America since the 1980s might in itself now be retro. It certainly isn’t enough. The cast is wonderful and provides what pleasure there is to be found. Helena Bonham-Carter and a delicious Eva Green steal the show right from under Johnny Depp’s fangs.

José Arroyo

The Purge (James DeMonaco, USA, 2013)

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The Purge

The Purge is a B-movie in conception and execution but, as is often the case with B-movies, it is also a timely and entertaining commentary on present-day America.

The film is set in 2022. The economy is booming, unemployment is barely 1% and America seems to have recovered from the violence and unrest of its recent past (i.e. our present). Why is that? Well because once a year Americans are legally allowed to go and kill anyone they feel like for a 12-hour period. This ‘purge’ is seen as a patriotic duty as it gets rid of all the criminals, all who are seen as ‘detritus’ (here black, poor, homeless) and simply anyone who is hated (which could include pretty much everyone, even in, or especially in, a gated community).

This purge is believed to flush out all bad people as well as all bad feeling leading to both social and psychological well being for the rest of the 364 days. Households are allowed to protect themselves against those who want them purged from this world of course…but that takes money. Thus at the heart of this seemingly banal sci-fi horror is a scathing critique of race and class in contemporary America. It’s been released under the title of  American Nightmare  (not Le cauchemar Américain).

The film is rather wonderful at inverting some of the conventions of the genre (What happens to nubile young girls who do naughty things? What’s the cost to the hero of protecting his family?), at re-attributing symbols (what it does here with the Occupy movement masks) and at indicating how close the language of politics, society, identity and community in America now is to that depicted in George Orwell’s Animal Farm.  The Purge  is also excellent at communicating a sense of  social hatred for the poor, for the failures, for the different or simply for those that have what you want.

The Purge cops out at the end (it wants to do the moral thing but also  keep the diamond rings), its analysis and critique are a bit muddled  and it is perhaps not as scary as it should be. I note that some message boards find the premise unbelievable because they can’t imagine emergency services not running for 12-hours (though welcome to most of the rest of the world friends!) or, as the film rather underlines, because of the psychological, social and economic cost of those 12-hours of purge.

If  you allow yourself to buy into the film’s premise, however, you’ll find that the film moves well; that Ethan Hawke is rather wonderful as an ordinary, slightly put-upon middle-class father; that he makes a good couple with Lena Hedley (best known for her Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones); that Rhys Wakefield is a superbly chilling villain and that the film is enjoyably scary whilst leaving you with a thing or two to think about.

José Arroyo

Byzantium (Neil Jordan, UK/USA/ Ireland, 2012)

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A vampire movie that doesn’t scare, doesn’t thrill, doesn’t arouse and isn’t romantic cannot be counted a success. And yet, I feel I wouldn’t mind seeing Byzantium again. First of all, there’s a really interesting and attractive cast that brings something quirky and off-center to the material: the preternatural stillness of Saoirse Ronan, the way Jonny Lee Miller can turn his face to a profile shot and all of a sudden go from syphilitic middle-aged man to everyone’s idea of a cruelly sadistic ‘Mills and Boon’ archetype, or the way Gemma Arterton’s cheekbones and accent permit her to get away with a line like ‘let’s kiss in celebration of my wickedness’; or simply the sound of Sam Riley’s voice. And those are just the leads: there’s also Daniel Mays and Thure Lindhart and Caleb Landry Jones; all doing rare and  interesting things with their body language and line-readings. The acting in the film is a fascinating  ‘Experiment in Performing Gothic Now’. Lots of risks are taken and not all of them pay off but it’s riveting.

The film depicts a once grand, now seedy, seaside town in the Regency period and in the present, above and below ground. It also comments on the roles of men and women; then and now; in daytime and at night; in the seaside, in the town, and beyond; when they’re got souls and when they haven’t.  Women then and now are shown to be at the mercy of men. We see them soliciting under the docks or fucked to exhaustion on billiard tables; we see them in Jane Austen gowns and in fuck me pumps; We see them giving birth in dirty beds or being born in streaming waterfalls, and it is significant that both types of birth are bathed in blood. Everything is shown at an oblique angle, through skylights or through the bars of windows and lifts, partially and at odd angles, that shows us intensely and richly coloured areas of a world obscured in darkness, and blurred by motion. Visually, the film dazzles and earns its name: it’s deeply coloured, there’s an orientalism to its conception (as there is to Dracula’s), and one is only shown things  partly, tangentially, obliquely because they’re mysterious, unknown and perhaps unknowable.

The film is tautly structured as a process of revelation.  Two women: one a whore, the other a prissy young girl who was bred for other things; one an angel bent on vengeance, the other an angel of mercy; one who wants to keep her secrets, the other who wants to write hers out. One a mother, the other a daughter; both raped by the same man: both chased by an order which wants to deny women the right of giving life. Moira Buffini’s screenplay, based on her play, is really a model of structure. Two thirds of the way through, the film seems to run out of steam, as if the marvelously structured screenplay and its dazzling telling, seemingly perfectly aligned initially, had each leapt into different and discordant dimensions.

The film directly references Hammer films but is too serious to offer the same pleasures (though it does have Arterton glorying in a waterfall of blood, an image worthy of any Hammer Horror). But the film’s very seriousness, which in some ways is a shortcoming, is also what makes it rich. Byzantium is a quasi feminist film that has very interesting and evocative things to say not only about gender politics but also about loneliness which is perhaps its central theme. You can see why the director of Mona Lisa (1986) and Interview with the Vampire (1994) would be drawn to this material and why he succeeds in extracting  so much depth and beauty from it. Byzantium doesn’t quite work but it’s richer and more interesting, visually and thematically, than other films that on the surface seem to work better.

José Arroyo

Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi, USA, 2009),

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Drag Me to Hell

All movies are, in some way or another, a reflection of their times. Horror movies, preying as they do on collective fears in order to scare us, are perhaps a more self-conscious commentary on the time in which they are made than other genres. In 30s horror films such as  Frankenstein (James Whale, USA, 1931) and The Mummy (Karl Freund, USA, 1932),  all those experts who didn’t know what they  were doing and ended up bringing forth monsters, all those weak and ineffectual men, and all the women those men were unable to prevent from being preyed upon sexually and psychology, were thought to be a reflection of, and  commentary on, The Great Depression. Today, we’re living through another Economic Disaster and contemporary horror is telling us equally interesting, if different things, about the world we live in. Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi, USA, 2009) is a case in point.

Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) former fat girl still fresh from the farm, is a loan officer with a bank. She’s going out with a Clay Dalton (Justin Long), a young university professor from a rich family. Christine wants to move up in life. She’s working hard on herself, learning ‘proper’ diction from audio-tapes, and also working hard at her job. She’s up for a promotion but has a competitor in Stan Rubin (Reggie Lee) who, in spite of being Chinese-American, benefits from being a man and having Lakers tickets to give to the boss, Mr. Jacks (David Payman). The boss worries that, in spite of her excellent qualifications and her work ethic, Christine won’t be able to make the tough decisions necessary to be Assistant Bank Manager. However, he offers her a chance to prove him wrong. Unfortunately for Christine, that chance comes when an old gypsy woman, Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), comes to ask for a third extension on her mortgage. Mr. Jacks leaves the decision entirely up to Christine, and though it is in her power to help Mrs. Ganush, Christine opts instead to show she’s got the right mentality to climb up the corporate ladder. Big Mistake. Christine makes it worse when Mrs. Ganush gets on her knees to beg and instead of helping her up, she calls security, thus not only depriving her of her home but also of her pride. The audience fully understands why Christine turns the old lady down. But it is with the old gypsy when she visits the curse of the Lamia on her: a loan officer, Christine,  will suffer horribly for three days after which she will be dragged straight to Hell. Hooray!

Drag Me to Hell is a wonderful movie. It’s got a thrilling pre-amble, a flashback to forty years ago that opens the film in an exciting manner whilst setting the context for the subsequent narrative. The Lamia Curse’s three-day deadline is a most effective structuring device for the story and one’s mind is constantly trying to work out the next turn. The heroine and the villainess are both nicely balanced, one understand the motivations of both and the film benefits from two powerful and witty central performances from Alison Lohman as Christine and Lorna Raver as Mrs. Ganush. Director Sam Raimi, lately director of the Spider-Man films, here returns to his roots and achieves a complex mix of expertly-judged tone, sometimes simultaneously making the audience laugh whilst feeling both scared and disgusted. It’s a film that’s made for the audience, much rarer than one would think, and the audience appreciates it. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a cinema where the audience has been so vocal in demonstrating unequivocal enjoyment of the variety of pleasures the film offers.

The response to Drag Me to Hell whilst watching it is physical. But like the very best Horror,  later on, whilst mulling it over, the film also offers something to think about. Drag Me to Hell is an interesting commentary on how things have changed in America. Firstly, we get an interesting depiction of who America is now considered to be made up of. The whole preamble to the film is in Spanish with sub-titles, perhaps a nod to the growing percentage of the American population that is of Hispanic origin. Christine’s rival in the bank is called Stu Rubin but is played by Jackie Lee so either he was cast blind or given that name to alleviate Chinese-American stereotyping. Interestingly, the only non-white or Asian (in the American sense of the term) amongst the principals is Dileep Rao as Rham Jas, the fortune teller. With Obama President, it would hardly do to cast an African American in the mystic hocus pocus role; but clearly things have not yet progressed to the point where they’d cast a black man as Christine’s love interest either. It might also be worth pointing out that the only social group tinged with villainy is the gypsies, presumably the only one without a sufficiently strong lobby group in Washington. So this film’s America has a poor nice blond girl from the heartland at its centre, a nice weak white middle-class professional (with an in-built joke as the Psychology professor who doesn’t believe in mumbo jumbo) entrenched, if ineffectual, at  the periphery. Hispanics, East Asians and Chinese, the film tells us, are very much at the heart of this America if not yet representative of it. These nasty new immigrants from Eastern Europe, however, are clearly a curse.

Class is a recurring issue in the film. Christine is poor and embarrassed by her origin. We are introduced to her practicing ‘correct’ diction whilst listening to audio-tapes in her car, something I don’t remember ever seeing in an American film before. It’s rare for American films to make distinctions between class and money, and certainly accent has rarely been an indicator of bank balance. Moreover, I’ve not recently seen rich people portrayed as negatively as they are in this movie; the father, ugly and ineffectual; the mother a thin, drawn, dragon-lady, her flesh clearly a sacrifice to her ambition; their house, a picture of soul-less minimalism; their values ones sure to make the audience wish the curse of the Lamia on them.

Christine is made to be very sympathetic. She’s a good girl, with a nice nerdy professional boyfriend. She used to be fat (Pork Queen in fact) and now isn’t, which in recent American culture has sometimes been depicted as akin to overcoming the affects of both thalidomide and drug addiction. Her mother is an alcoholic, which in a nation in which, until recently, people have competed amongst themselves to claim victimhood, has usually been enough to milk sympathy for practically anything, working effectively as a rationale and excuse for countless nasty actions. However, that was then and this is now. Christine is a loan officer. She’s effectively turned someone from her home and repossessed their house when she didn’t need to. In the current climate, and if the audience is any indication, that’s enough to get anyone dragged to hell. We like Christine, we understand her. However, when she need to get ahead she chucks an old lady on the street; when it comes to the crunch, she’s willing  to sacrifice her cherished and helpless kitty to save her own ass. She’s nice yes. We understand her. We like her. But she’s done wrong and bankers have run out of excuses. Two years ago she might have lived. In the current climate, does she get dragged straight to hell? Is it a spoiler to say, ‘No Shit Sherlock’?

José Arroyo