Drag Me To Hell (PG-13) 99 min. directed by: Sam Raimi. written by: Sam and Ivan Raimi. starring: Alison Lohman, Justin Long, David Paymer, Lorna Raver, Dileep Rao, Adriana Baraza. cinematography: Peter Deming. original music: Christopher Young.
Wow, what a weekend for movies. This is one of the best lineups I’ve seen since sometime in summer of 99 when The Sixth Sense, Dick, Iron Giant, Mystery Men and The Thomas Crown Affair all released on the same friday. I was actually in the midst of writing up reviews this afternoon for two other films that debuted today (one a masterpiece and the other a solid entertainment) when my wife called me and inquired if I’d like to check out a movie around 4. We had two on the roster we wanted to see–Drag Me to Hell and Up! and she expressed interest in seeing the former first. Afterall, it’s almost a given that a new Pixar will be brilliant, but the idea of a new Sam Raimi horror comedy? Yea, if I haven’t said it before, let me say it now: my wife rocks!
As it turns out, there couldn’t be a better popcorn movie for a rainy Friday evening than Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell. As a pure audience experience, I don’t think we will see its equal all summer long. Even our moderately attended late-afternoon showing yielded plenty of responsive yelps, guffaws and nervous giggles; Raimi hasn’t played an audience this well since Spiderman 2 and Drag Me To Hell is Sam’s best film since 1998’s A Simple Plan. Best of all, Raimi the mainstream filmmaker takes a back seat to the goop-meister Raimi responsible for the Evil Dead trilogy. He opens up his box of wacky tricks and unleashes a thrill-a-minute creep fest that isn’t afraid to go for the cheap scare or the cheap laugh while still maintaining a level of class that most current horror pictures don’t even get around to thinking about. When the old-style Universal logo came up on screen I knew we were in for something , ahem, ‘groovy’.
The movie has a pre-credits sequence that sets the stage for whats to come; a family in the 60’s bring their ailing son to Shaun San Dena, a fortune teller and seer who tries to help the boy. He stole a silver necklace from a gypsy caravan and for the past three days has been having violent hallucinations and mumbles something about a dark force ‘coming to get him’. San Dena tries to save the youngster but something supernatural bursts in on the attempt and ….well, you should see it for yourself. Lets just say that at this point Raimi lets everyone know that while this might be rated PG-13 its anything but safe.
Hell then launches into the main story, involving Allison Lohman’s Christine, a sweet and mild mannered loan officer who is vying with a new employee for an assistant manager position at the bank where she works. In an effort to turn the tables to her advantage, Christine makes a break from her usually tender disposition and spurns an elderly gypsy woman who begs not to be foreclosed on. The decision is left in Christine’s hands and she sends the gypsy, Mrs. Ganush, on her way after a humilating display where the old lady grovels at the young woman’s feet.
After a particularly vivid and rousing slap-stick(a stapler is used in a most inappropriate way) battle between Christine and the angry hag in a darkened parking lot, Mrs. Ganush manages to rip away one of the girl’s buttons and issues a curse on it. The only word Lohman hears clearly is ‘Lamia’. She doesn’t know what it means but before very long the cozy and quiet little life she has been trying to maintain with her boyfriend Clay is falling apart. Something terrifying is hunting Christine and hideous visions flood her every waking thought; among them a goat-like creature who stamps its cloven feet outside of her door and the gypsy lady herself, vomiting pounds of beetles and worms onto the young woman while she sleeps. When she consults dime-store psychic Rham Jas, he senses an evil presence and warns her that she has been cursed by a gypsy demon called the Lamia, or ‘Black Goat’. She will hallucinate for 3 days and on the fourth the Lamia will come and literally drag her down to the pits of hell, soul and all.
The plot is just a simple hook upon which Raimi hangs an irreverent and rambunctious series of gross-out gags, jump-scares and atmospheric sequences where characters try to solve problems and find themselves knee-deep in complete, supernatural chaos. Theres plenty of absurd special fx and interesting camera work (a fly lands directly on the lens at one point) but the film’s secret weapon is its breath-taking sound design. When the jump scares land I dare you not to nearly soil yourself. The sound becomes so antagonistic that it results in the first horror film where we desire to cover our ears in fear rather than our eyes.
Instead of giving the audience a concrete monster to fix upon, Raimi keeps switching from one halloween trick to the next; pieces of furniture attack, a handkerchief floats about and mutters as it does so, and there are some very sick-making but ingenious things done with flies. By the time one character regurgitates a whole cat, Drag Me To Hell has already deluged us in more fluids than should be allowable in one film. The regurgitation, especially, is quite frequent. In fact, vomit spews out of people here like pop references in a Tarantino film. Why puke? Because it’s less disturbing to the ratings board and it’s more inherently repulsive. Raimi loves to make our skin crawl, and make us laugh, and then , one scene later, take the whole enterprise seriously and wonder why we were laughing in the first place.
In Drag Me To Hell Sam unleashes seven different kinds of Stooge-like pain on Alison Lohman, who is one heck of a good sport. But in the end, it’s not the gross-out stuff that causes the 50’s horror-style dread but the underlying idea behind the entire movie; when the Lamia comes, its not Christine’s body that will pay the price but her spiritual essence. Fear not the one who can destroy the body, but the soul as well. So while he dishes out supernatural vengeance on Christine and her personal life, Raimi builds the unsettling idea of what such a drastic sentence might push a typically decent young woman to do. This girl doesn’t want eternal torment, and she doesn’t believe she deserves what is coming. In the end, afterall, it was the bank, not she, that had canceled on Mrs. Ganosh. Watching the ways in which Christine attempts to out-manuever the curse adds a layer of tragedy and dread to what , in all other ways,is a vintage horror comic come to life. And this is not a bad thing.
When all else fails, Jas brings Christine to Shaun San Dena, older now and played by the wonderfully effective Adriana Barraza (Babel, Henry Poole is Here). San Dena is looking to atone for her failure of years past and her focus is two-fold: save Christine and destroy the Lamia for good. The seance that follows is the grand event of Drag Me To Hell, where every funhouse gimmick in the book gets trotted out. Raimi has said on the Evil Dead 2 commentary that there was originally a crazy seance planned for that movie but the budget didn’t allow it. 20 some years later not only has he made it, but it’s one of the best pieces of directing he’s ever done.
I had alot of fun with Drag Me To Hell and with Sam’s never-ending visual imagination. So much of whats here looks like a patchwork quilt of Darkman, Evil Dead and Army of Darkness but theres also a feverish ingenuity to the way it’s put together. Even when I had a handle on where the script itself was going story-wise I was constantly blindsided by the elaborate goofiness on display; a pivotal and tension-filled seance scene is interrupted by a grotesque, gabby goat. And Raimi has something this time around he never had when making the original Evil Dead films; talented and nuanced actors. Not to slam Bruce Campbell as Ash in the Dead films but his performance was mostly physical comedy and impersonated machismo–it absolutely worked but thats not what this movie requires. It requires us to feel for and worry for Christine, while also seeing the not so honest and kind underneath that she hides from everyone else. We also have to believe she is a strong enough spirit to take the kinds of blows and psychological assault she comes under here, while remaining steadfast in her search for an end to the curse.
Lohman delivers this completely. She has always used her childlike features and youthful innocence to great effect, particularly in Matchstick Men where she ran an entire con based around the fact, but here she plays it up AND plays against it. It was fun to see Campbell get cluelessly thrashed in Army of Darkness but it’s something altogether different when baby-faced Lohman, covered in bile and formaldyhide, stands up and fights for her soul, even if it means fighting dirty and passing the buck to others. The actors around Christine could have been pulled from a black and white horror film and they capture the right tone for the piece.
Justin Long has the thankless role that used to belong to the likes of Kent Smith back in the 40s, the doubtful but supportive partner,, and he does a nice job of it. He stabilizes the movie and brings it back to a relative state of normalcy. This is mostly done so Raimi can just shatter it all over again, and he does that with the likes of Lorna Raver as the vengeful gypsy. There is nothing subtle about her performance and thats the beauty. Sometimes she is just a frail but nasty old woman and then other times shes putting in her dentures so she can bite Lohman. My personal favorite performance is Adriana Baraza’s turn as San Dena, who is only in the film for the duration of the seance scene. Baraza has a folksy and sincere quality to her that was put to good use in films like Babel and Henry Poole is Here, where she took a typical latin stereotype and revealed to us the living breathing person underneath. In this movie she is all stereotype all the time, but she harnesses it and makes the best darn demon-fighting fortune teller you will ever see. That scene is the magnetic core of the movie and she is the emotional core of the scene.
I’ve always been a big fan of well-made horror films but I really detest what usually passes for the genre in today’s marketplace. Typically amoral and centered around pain and misery, the current crop withers in the face of Raimi’s jolly but straightforward tale of good and evil. Like the Spiderman films, there are choices we face and consequences for those choices. What I appreciate about Sam Raimi is that he doesn’t try to unhinge us as much as entertain us. He’s like a demented carnival barker, running us through various traps and amusements and bringing us out on the other side, not permanently scarred or wishing we could un-see half of what we just witnessed, but entertained and energized by the grand silliness up there on screen. And if theres a lingering bit of the creeps? All the better.