The first sequence of Drag Me To Hell throws you into a house where a young boy’s family brings him after being tormented for three days by voices and unseen, violent spirits. After an intense impromptu séance, we get to see the demon’s flame-filled endgame. The walls bending, an invisible entity slamming people up against the furniture, the marble cracking against the shrieks of lost souls. Before you have time to catch your breath, the giant words DRAG ME TO HELL slam onto the screen, taking up every inch in bold lettering. And so it begins.
As a major fan of Raimi’s terror work of the past – that mix of near-campy humor, disgusting images, and loud-as-hell jump scares, Drag Me To Hell renewed my faith in fun filmmaking.
Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is a loans officer angling for the assistant manager position at her bank which means shedding some of the shyness and making the hard decisions. One of those hard decisions is kicking hyper-old Gypsy Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) out of her home by refusing to extend her loan payments for a third time. This, of course, results in Ganush seeking Christine out, attacking her, and placing a curse on her that gives her only three days of torture to find a way to avoid being dragged down to an eternity of a very dry heat.
Holy hell, I loved this movie.
First of all, Sam Raimi was swinging some giant cajones to do some of the things he pulls off in this movie. Very few directors (outside maybe Peter Jackson) would have the sensibility to create a movie that combines the diverse elements of horror and comedy into one package that completely satisfies. Not only do the jumps and the laughter co-mingle from scene to scene, they often exist side by side during a single sequence – try not to pull back, cringe, and burst out laughing when Ganush tries to gum Christine’s lower jaw off. While you’re at it, try to keep the bile from rising because it’s also incredibly gross.
And it all works. The characters and the story come together beautifully with all of the dark intentions that you’d hope from a horror story. The stakes are incredibly high – we’re talking about a young woman’s eternal damnation, demons feasting the bits of her soul forever and ever amen – and Sam and Ivan Raimi have written a screenplay that doesn’t shy away from putting its main character in deep shit. They don’t back away from the challenge and weight of being sucked through the cold concrete to burn forever, all while giving her several options to avoid it – whenever one doesn’t work out, they open the window on another. It’s a structure that works incredibly well, mostly because the danger is real, the solution isn’t easy, and Christine gets the crap beaten out of her by the shadow of a goat-demon the entire time.
Lohman is great, harboring the kind of sweet disdain that her character needs. She’s an everyman, just trying to get ahead in an unfair business world where her boss dangles her competition for a promotion in front of her face. There’s definitely a subtle hint of the struggle almost all women must go through in trying to prove themselves to male bosses – but it’s never pronounced, light years away from preachy. It’s completely frustrating, and Lohman carries that and the concept of growing within that world really well. You definitely feel for Christine, even if you know nothing of her outside her actions within the scope of the film (besides the fact that she used to be fat growing up). Playing off that sensitivity and strength of a woman losing her mind in the real and spirit worlds, Justin Long plays her boyfriend Clay brilliantly. His normal snark is reigned in enough to make him likable and sweet, although he gets a few one-liners in, they are presented as background so he never has a chance to get annoying. He’s also a great moral grounding – a smart guy who stands up for his girlfriend to his parents, believes in Christine’s potential, and comes through for her simply because he took a personal vow when he fell in love with her. All of this is done without pretense, so it’s not cheesy or fake.
The supporting cast is also fantastic. Dileep Rao as the seer Rham Jas is great and Adriana Barraza is intense as a medium who’s waited decades for another chance to destroy the evil spirit. There’s also little more concomitantly heartbreaking and disgusting as Lorna Raver’s Mrs. Ganush removing her dentures to eat hard candy.
But of course the real standout, what we all came to see, is the sheer amount of gory ridiculousness that was advertised. And Drag Me To Hell delivers in bucket loads. Most of it is mucus and embalming fluid, but there’s a little blood thrown in for good measure. The PG-13 rating shouldn’t scare anyone off – Raimi has done something brilliant by returning to the classic standby of atmospheric horror as opposed to relying on the crutch of CGI or showing a monster whose zipper is showing. Most of the jump scares work effectively (if the limber contortions of my friend Allison were any indication (what? she gets scared easily)), but a lot of the tension comes from creating a brooding atmosphere – wind that’s a little too strong, inanimate objects shaking on their own, shadows chasing up the wall – and then delivering on it. Whereas some directors can either create the atmosphere or the explosive pay off but not both, Raimi builds creepy scenes to a climax and either pays them off then and there or gives you a few moments to think the terror has passed. Plus, he does it all with a great sense of humor, too.
The main reason those scares work is the ear-crushing score. Single violins, grinding horn lines, and booming full-orchestra sweeps should remind you of when sound mattered in film. In no other scene is this pushed more to the forefront than the scene in which Jas, the spirit medium and Christine come together to summon the spirit. While the camera circles the room or closes up on faces, the score is given the full responsibility for several minutes to produce a feeling of terror and anticipation, and it works beautifully. With a little aid from the looks of danger on the actor’s faces, the music swells beyond what you expect your ear drums can take. And it’s fucking incredible.
Some of the CGI doesn’t work (which makes me even more thankful that Raimi doesn’t overuse it) or it comes off as way too cartoonish. There’s an argument that since some of the scenes are possible hallucinations and they’re pretty over-the-top silly in the first place, that the CGI fits in, but ultimately I wish it had been a bit cleaner. It would have been great to see more realistic CGI added to an already great movie. The same goes for maybe one or two groan-worthy lines. The bulk of it all works really well within the sometimes-campy, sometimes-deadly-serious world, but a few lines cross over into cheese territory.
Still, it’s fantastic to see when a director is simply having fun with the art of filmmaking. It’s easy to tell that Raimi had a lot of love for this project, and that his cast and crew probably had a blast making it. It’s scary when it needs to be, hilarious almost constantly and shot really interestingly. Plus, there are at least three situations that seem totally unethical, yet totally easy to get behind – which made me question my status as a decent human being on the drive back home from the theater. It would impossible to mention them without spoiling the movie, but trust my earlier statement about it taking big brass cajones to make this film.
It all works. A return to Raimi’s roots, a return to atmospheric horror, a return to fun filmmaking. It’s probably the most fun I’ve had sitting in a darkened theater all year, and I owe it all to Sam Raimi and Alison Lohman’s ability to make out with a dead body.