Two horror films, two degrees of director skill. Two beautiful leading ladies, both tormented or prodded by demons. Sounds like a natural pairing for a late-night back-to-back horror bash.
Let’s get this out of the way quickly: Drag Me to Hell and Jennifer’s Body are two very different films. This should come as no surprise– the latter is directed by Karyn Kusama, whose experience in the art of the feature presentation could be generously called mixed, and written by Diablo Cody, another fledgling talent whose limited writing credits belie a great gift with wordplay and strong narrative ability. Meanwhile, the former has none other than Sam Raimi, B-movie demigod, at the steering wheel with his multi-faceted brother Ivan ably assisting at the script stage. Both team-ups produce movies with shared sensibilities– melding comedy with scares– but apply those sensibilities in totally different ways, yielding two films that don’t seem to share much family resemblance on the surface but bear common traits underneath.
My bias in the matter should be clear to veteran readers– in the battle of babes versus demons, Drag Me to Hell stands head and shoulders above Jennifer’s Body. Drag Me to Hell is the kind of mastercraft presentation that rarely gets made in a day when cheap jump scares and uninspiring plots are more than enough to earn a green light for any horror film; no matter how awful the final product turns out, there’s almost a sure-fire guarantee that the studio behind it will make money thanks to the minute monetary demands of the genre. Rare are the times when something fresh– dare I say original?– and flawlessly constructed gets delivered to the mainstream in lieu of remakes and retreads. Drag Me to Hell is nothing short of horror bliss and perfection, and the kind of film that Raimi should make more often than he does, that enthralling spook-a-blast fusion of the scares and the gross-outs of horror with Three Stooges/Charlie Chaplin slapstick. For Raimi fans, it’s a reminder that the master’s still got it. For those newer to the genre, it’s a great introduction into what made Raimi into such an icon of low-budget, D.I.Y. horror filmmaking.
Drag Me to Hell sees Alison Lohman get the Bruce Campbell treatment big-time as she’s haunted by a lamia, an evil spirit adamant on…well, what the title says. Lohman’s sweet-as-a-peach Christine Brown is exactly the kind of person you don’t see much in modern horror films– she’s good-hearted and pleasant, a wonderful young woman all around who happens to make the wrong decision at the wrong time. When she denies the aged Ms. Ganush a third extension on her mortgage payment, the elderly gypsy woman (if Stephen King has taught us anything, it’s to never cross gypsies) curses Christine with three days of torment before being pulled into hell to burn for eternity. This hardly seems fitting, and it’s hard not to become heavily invested in her plight by virtue of just how darn likable she is, and that relationship we form with her heightens every unfolding event in the rest of the film.
There’s a bit of social commentary woven into the proceedings; there’s a palpable sense of unrest toward the continuing housing crisis here, where the true culprits behind the decisions that cost people their homes walk away unscathed and the middlemen and the home-owners both suffer in kind. Christine’s the messenger, after all, and she’s being shot rather than her boss and her co-worker, both of whom pressure Christine to make the “tough” decision in their own ways.
And it’s all told through Sam Raimi’s perspective as a filmmaker. It’s just impossible to turn that down; those stylistic flairs that make Raimi’s films so recognizably his own, the absurdity of the situations he puts his protagonist in, and the amount of, let’s be frank, crap he’s willing to pile on them never fail to entertain. Lohman’s a real sport for putting up with the amount of repulsive stuff Raimi makes her deal with; she’s thrown up on (twice!), drooled on, tossed around and thrown through things, choked with an entire arm, and that’s just scratching the surface. And like Ash, the iconic geek hero of the Evil Dead series, she reacts to it all with the perfect balance of fear and irritation, as though having to drop an anvil on Ms. Ganush’s head (yep) is no more an inconvenience than breaking a nail or stubbing a toe. Drag Me to Hell certainly has a great economy of scares, but it’s that perfect harmony between laughter and fear that makes it stand out as being so uniquely Raimi.
But with all that said I have to be fair to Jennifer’s Body, a unfairly maligned (criminally so, even) film that really got the short end of the stick thanks to…well, I don’t know what. Diablo Cody backlash? Perhaps. Megan Fox backlash? More doubtful. Cody, as a talented and well-spoken female writer working in a man’s world, catches an enormous amount of flack for her opinions and for her background (she used to be a stripper, though I cannot understand why this must be harped on and held against her), but she writes sharp, effective, and precise dialogue for her characters and she knows how to tell a great story; she and Kusama make Jennifer’s Body into a completely enjoyable and freaky teen horror outing.
Jennifer’s Body shares a number of sensibilities in common with Drag Me to Hell (which helps make them a pretty great duo), including a healthy sense of a humor and a dedication to fleshing out characters instead of simply inserting them into a supernatural situation and expecting them to remain static. Maybe most of all, Jennifer’s Body relies a lot on actual fear to spark a reaction in its audiences rather than copious amounts of grue. Oh, there’s some nastiness on display here– animals licking the eviscerated corpse of one of the victims of Megan Fox’s demon-possessed high school flag girl, exaggerated vomiting (another commonality!), bar patrons being turned into flaming bar patrons– but the scariest moments are generally the least graphic.
Jennifer (Fox) and her best friend, Needy (Amanda Seyfried), head out to a pub one night to catch a performance by an up-and-coming indie band that happens to be comprised of devil worshipers that kidnap the former girl and sacrifice her to gain fame and fortune. The ritual ends up leaving Jennifer alive, but sharing residence in her head-space with a succubus (the ritual called for a virgin; unsurprisingly Jennifer is not). What follows sounds like an on-ramp to the highway of gore, but Kusama plays with shadow puppetry when her film calls for teenage boys to be disemboweled; she finds more fear in Jennifer’s unsettling, blood-stained smile post-meal than in throwing buckets of DNA onto the walls of her sets. If nothing else, her inclination toward restraint is admirable: Unconcerned with examining what 16 year olds look like on the inside, Kusama gets the chance to foster and earn some great scares.
Driving her film are the performances of Fox and Seyfried, both of which are uniformly excellent. Seyfried is an actress well worth keeping your eye on, and even those who don’t typically tune in to horror films might want to check out Jennifer’s Body to watch her. She’s that good. It helps that Cody and Kusama give her a very genuine and very textured character to work with, but Needy’s nerdy pluck and charm are all her own. Like Christine Brown, Needy is the kind of character we truly care about and want to root for. Meanwhile, Fox seems to have found her real niche as one of horror’s newest vixen queens. Sure, she could just make a career out of being the hot girl in obnoxious popcorn movies like Transformers, but in light of how good she is here that just seems like a waste. She’s a combustible engine of sexual energy with animal intelligence shimmering in her eyes as she glides through the movie like a shark searching for prey. Ever think Megan Fox could never scare the crap out of you? Think twice. She’s utterly fearsome here.
Jennifer’s Body adds up to a lean and efficient horror movie, though I can’t help but think that if all the details meshed better it could have been even better. On that note, I never once thought that about Drag Me to Hell, from which Raimi extracts every emotion and nails every beat that he needs to. While the former picture is worthy on its own merits, Drag Me to Hell begs to be seen and stands out as one of the best horror movies of its decade. Together, though, they make a really killer double feature for the night owls prowling the On Demand channels for something to whet their appetite or for the next time you need a good double-header for your friends. Bloodthirsty cheerleaders, decrepit gypsies, bodily fluids, and plenty of demonic possession to go around– in other words, a winning combination.