By Michael Koresky
Drag Me to Hell
Dir. Sam Raimi, U.S., Universal
Drag Me to Hell has come out at the perfect moment for Sam Raimi. The generation of adolescent horror fanatics and movie buffs who grew up wearing out their video cassettes of the Evil Dead trilogy from overuse at sleepovers and who have been wondering through their twenties and thirties (and perhaps beyond) why they just don’t make ‘em like that anymore, are now in cultural tastemaking positions—as reviewers, bloggers, studio greenlighters even—to help bring about the narrative of Raimi’s prodigal return. Certainly for the hordes of fans who have felt twinges of disappointment by his big-studio shenanigans in the past decade or so (regardless of his continued slavishness to his comic-book demographic), the very possibility of Raimi going back to his roots is a cause for salivation.
Of course, those roots, lest we forget, were nasty, gnarled, and in the case of the over-estimated, under-budgeted first Evil Dead, the appendages of a possessed tree that literally committed rape on a female victim. Rather than debate the merits of that memorably dubious image, I will admit that it does represent something of a lost sensibility—a devil-may-care, anything-spurts approach to creepshowing—that can’t possibly be sustained in the latter-day retro fitting of Drag Me to Hell, which is both too calculated in its Raimi self-mythologizing and too eager-to-please in its zippy “something for the fans” nature to register as truly dangerous or inventive horror filmmaking. This doesn’t mean that Drag Me to Hell isn’t a consistently engaging, smartly conceived and executed fright-fest, but rather that it’s a ultimately a monster of a different color. With such buzz and good will surrounding it, it almost didn’t matter if it was good (the words “Sam Raimi” and “horror” have already done more for the film than any number of positive reviews ever could). The only genuinely shocking thing about Raimi’s new film is that, despite its generally safe audience courting and circumscribed playbook, it’s easily his best since Evil Dead 2, and maybe the best storytelling of his career.
Though he’s commonly cited for his alleged overabundance of technique and whirly-twirly flourishes, as a filmmaker Sam Raimi is for the most part anything but excessive, as Drag Me to Hell proves time and again. Especially in light of the sadistic strain of American horror films in recent years, which latch onto a concept or even just an image, and hit it over and over again with dull defeatism (Hostel, 28 Weeks Later, the Dawn of the Dead remake, The Strangers) Raimi’s new movie seems particularly elegant, tight, and as consistent in its own logic as these sorts of things can be. Nearly everything in Drag, save some awkwardly jutting dream sequences, just fits—even its many jokey asides act not as non sequiturs but as fully integrated responses to plot points. As many might say, this is a “lean, mean scream machine,” and though that term connotes mechanical precision (and it’s something you could never call the Evil Dead films, which were made up of random parts sticking out at weird angles, with Bruce Campbell’s Monty Python deadpan only serving to create bigger gaps between its laughs and its scares), in this film’s case such fastidiousness serves a purpose. Unlike his earlier trilogy—whose portal-to-another-world hokum was just one generation more coherent than Dario Argento’s extra-cruddy witch-book narratives in Suspiria and Inferno—Drag Me to Hell functions on the level of an EC Comics morality tale from the crypt: character-fueled, cause-and-effect, and glib. As such, it requires a steadier hand, and with his career-honed skills, Raimi is now able to remind us of the pleasures of classical horror. Where with the Evil Dead films, for all their ingenuity and visual imagination, Raimi often came across as a kid hyperactively showing you his collection of rubber skeletons and monster-movie memorabilia, now he provides the right emotional context for his gallery of grotesques—without sacrificing the humor.
Also crucial to the success of Drag Me to Hell is Alison Lohman, who as deceptively docile protagonist Christine Brown, is onscreen for nearly the entire running time, all of which she invests with palpable desperation, terror, and just the right dollop of knowing absurdity (a Bruce Campbell type, with his detached bemusement, is unthinkable here). A plausible human being in a genre that too often merely sets up characters for the butcher block, the perfectly but unpretentiously primped Christine is a loan officer gritting her teeth as she waits out a significant promotion at the bank. (Any critic susceptible to the folly of trying to locate “relevant” contemporary fears in every horror film that comes down the pike can read what they will into such serendipitous subject matter, and make whatever connections they want to the mortgage crisis, but the realities of Christine’s work can only earn an appreciate shrug before we move on to grottier matters.) In angling for a new title and pay raise—and looking out for her main competition, Stu, played by Reggie Lee with just enough corporate unctuousness—Christine needs to prove her mettle to her bottom-liner boss (owl-eyed David Paymer), and as a result makes easily the worst decision of her life when she refuses to extend a loan to a beseeching crone (Lorna Raver).
It’s here that Raimi not only kicks it into high gear but also proves his adeptness at constructing scenes from the seemingly offhanded details others might leave out. As Christine goes to ask her boss for advice on what to do about this obviously pathetic, desperate woman, Mrs. Ganush, she looks back and notices her removing her false teeth in order to taste a candy plucked from a bowl on Christine’s desk (naturally, this being a Raimi film, the dentures come out with appropriate amounts of drizzling, goopy saliva). The disgust that subtly registers on Lohman’s face is then compounded when the cragged old lady surreptitiously slides the remainder of the colored suckers into her purse. This small, sly interplay of glances (from us and Christine) is a cunning way of putting us in Christine’s position: our kneejerk physical response neutralizes any sympathy we may have shown for Mrs. Ganush, and based on such sickening superficialities we suddenly want prim and proper Christine to summarily eject her from the building. Even before the supernatural has roared its ugly head, Raimi has already made us feel revulsion—the lingering queasy guilt of which only grows more profound as the film moves into freak-out territory. With these and other seeming throwaway shots and sight gags, many of which later have narrative pay-offs (Christine pausing to gaze longingly at a bakery window; a poster of a splayed-out kitten hanging on the wall in her bedroom reading “Baby, Hold On”), Raimi builds character with an adroit cheekiness that makes his film the savviest, and perhaps most humane, pop horror film in quite some time.
Before you can say Thinner (or rather, “Theeeee-ner”) the toothless hag, who of course turns out to be a wicked gypsy (a frankly un-PC pop-folkloric holdover that fits in well with the film’s cartoonish overload), retaliates. Following an expertly mounted struggle between the old and young women in a (what else?) dark, dank parking garage that crescendos with a stapler bit that seriously pushes the film to the outer limits of PG-13, Mrs. Ganush puts a curse on poor Christine, and the film proceeds to follow her over the course of four days, during which she and her befuddled boyfriend (Justin Long) manically try to find ways of removing the hex before an ancient demon, called a lamia, comes and drags her to you-know-where. It’s surprising how well it all works: Lohman is everygirl natural enough to make us in the audience wonder what we might do in her situation (which, if you think about it, is a real feat when it comes to this kind of goofy surreality), while Raimi is savvy and skilled enough at this point to balance the absurdity of the situation with unapologetic gnawing tension. The unseen lamia, glimpsed as fleeting shadows under doors and behind curtains as he stalks Christine (often in broad daylight, an especially nice touch) is a continued source of dread, and while it’s unclear exactly why the beast is teasing and tormenting her before the big day, its seemingly constant presence allows Raimi to unleash an aural assault on his audience that can only be described as wonderfully unwelcome, and which proves, like Jobeth Williams’s screeching door opening in Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (another PG-rated traumatizer), that aural shock need not always be tagged as a lazy out for horror filmmakers—this is a film for a loud theater.
If the horrific sound design of Drag Me to Hell often trumps its visual scares (many of which fall back on enjoyably infantile gross-outs: mouths full of bugs and quarts of leaking embalming fluid), at least Raimi shows a certain amount of restraint in his use of CGI, which would have been deadly had it been more persistent. Thankfully, Raimi often uses rubbery corpses and monster makeup, and in a late séance sequence, some refreshingly old-fashioned pulley and rope work for a spirit possession. There’s truly only one scene, a nonsensical nightmare in which Christine comes upon a demonic Ganush in her shed, that proves disastrously digitized: when an anvil pounds down on the old woman’s head and pus and eyeballs shoot out of her face in a squishy catapult, the effect looks perhaps less “real” than even Jim Carrey’s famed ocular surprise in The Mask. Like Raimi’s occasional propensity for swoopy-woopy camera show-offs (much tempered here from his days in the Evil Dead cabin), his here-and-there reliance on computer-generated gotchas is distracting but not detrimental in Drag Me to Hell, unlike in, say, his increasingly ‘toon-exclusive Spider-Man series.
Yet why Drag Me to Hell is a mostly pleasurable experience has as much to do with its surprising measure of sensitivity as its technique. What Raimi has brought back to the horror film (for these 99 minutes, at least) is a brand of broad morality tale that today may seem as quaint as a Nelson Eddy-Jeannette McDonald musical. Essentially a story about paying your dues, Raimi’s film (which he wrote with his collaborator brother, Ivan) recalls the lineage of Lovecraft and Poe, which in turn influenced latter day fearmongers like Rod Serling, Stephen King, and George Romero. Basing a horror story on the application of just-desserts, even if seemingly misdirected, rather than on awful things happening to random people, brings the genre back to a more concrete cosmic Christian terror. Of course, a morality tale is a wholly different thing from one that moralizes, which is just one of the many reasons why Drag Me to Hell is set apart from that con artist Eli Roth’s Hostel duo, and why this film, which is by design stale, appears so refreshing alongside other contemporary horror features. Unlike Roth, Raimi knows better than to chastise his audience for their bloodlust, and smartly refrains from making political claims for his nimble little trick-or-treater. Like so many contemporary genre movies, Drag Me to Hell may be at heart a film about itself—its own function, its own rules, its own methods—but thanks to Raimi’s expert construction, it feels surprisingly expansive.