It Burns, Burns, Burns
2009 // USA // Sam Raimi // June 7, 2009 // Theatrical Print
B+ - Horror films with a camp sensibility are a dime a dozen, but outright giddy horror is a much more elusive creature. In his much-ballyhooed return to the form after a seventeen-year hiatus (if we disregard 2002's The Gift), director Sam Raimi delivers the latter species in Drag Me to Hell, a wicked delight so gratifyingly realized that calling it a "genre exercise" seems faint praise. While its title suggests exploitation schlock in the vein of Die Screaming, Marianne and I Spit on Your Grave, the trappings of Raimi's film are standard occult thriller fare. The tone, however, summons forth the nightmarish, absurdist character that was previously endemic to the Evil Dead films. Also evident is the bleak, even malevolent worldview that emerges from Raimi's smaller (read: non-Spider-man) films, from Darkman to A Simple Plan. Exhibiting both tremendous confidence and a ravenous appetite for unholy fun, Drag Me to Hell deserves better than a soft-mouthed label like "tribute" or "throwback." Let's be clear: It's a damn fine horror film in every way.
Raimi has always had affection for anonymous working schlubs, but Drag Me to Hell devotes significant attention to the personal details of its heroine, Christine Brown (Alison Rohmer), an eager-to-please loan officer living in Pasadena. In this, oddly enough, the film hews closely to Spider-Man, with its bittersweet tittering at the indignities heaped upon Peter Parker. Doe-eyed and perky as a daisy, Christine is not accustomed to antagonism or subterfuge. Her ambitions and doubts are as plain as the traces of babyfat on her face, which hint at the farmgirl life she is striving to leave behind. At first blush she seems an unlikely foil for Sylvia Ganush (Lorner Raver), the decrepit gypsy hag who comes to Christine seeking a third extension on her mortgage. Yet the dichotomies that emerge upon reflection are striking. Christine is achingly fresh-faced, quivering with aspirations, and struggling mightily to sever the ties to her old self. The haggard and ailing Sylvia desires nothing more than to stay put, evoking both a defiance in the face of death—the ultimate "eviction"—as well as the stateless existence of the Roma. (A strangely touching undertone given the film's distinctly Hammer-esque characterization of gypsy culture.)
Christine elects to turn Sylvia away in order to demonstrate her managerial ruthlessness to her boss. She is unfortunately oblivious regarding the consequences of scorning an old gypsy woman, especially one with a literal evil eye. Their confrontation eventually culminates in Sylvia's invocation of a foul gypsy curse. She summons a demonic spirit known as a lamia, which will torment Christine for three days before—you guessed it—dragging her down to Hell itself. This pretty much sets the story off and running, with the remainder of the film devoted to the escalating agonies that Christine suffers at the hands of the lamia, and to her attempts to avert her infernal fate. She turns to her professor boyfriend (Justin Long), a New Age guru (Dileep Rao), and a Mexican medium (Adrianna Barraza) for aid, but demons, as it turns out, are notoriously resistant to dissuasion.
Purely in terms of scare-the-bejeezus-out-of-you spectacle, Drag Me to Hell is pitch-perfect horror film-making. Raimi demonstrates that his skills as a horror director have sharpened considerably in the years since The Evil Dead's skuzzy shocks first made the midnight movie circuit snap to attention. Here the rhythms of the form—the frights, the lulls, the vise-like tension—are employed to masterful effect, all for the estimable goal of keeping the viewer giggling and shrieking with glee. As a rule, I consider myself a savvy and jaded horror filmgoer, and yet Raimi somehow had me begging for the scares. Moreover, there is cinematic cunning of a high order at play in Drag Me to Hell, albeit inconsistently, rivaling the most assured moments of Argento and Carpenter. The film boasts unexpectedly bravura compositions and camerawork that, while often outrageous, are never ostentatious. Space and motion are utilized to deliver terrifying gut-punches and establish a shifting tonal landscape of gross-out slapstick, harrowing violence, cartoonish absurdity, and tightening despair. (Watch for a slow pan early in the film that contains one of the best reveals I've ever seen.) The sound design is singularly terrifying, almost overwhelming, employing shrieks, roars, creaks, whines, and buzzing to convey the implacability of both the monster and Christine's destiny.
The moral universe of the Dead films has always been a troubling place, where supernatural evils seem to exist not within a traditional gothic framework, but as a kind of terrifying elemental force, albeit one with an unsettling sadistic streak. Drag Me to Hell follows this approach as well. Raimi's horrors don't belong within a theological hierarchy of good and evil. Rather, they lurk around the fringes of normal human experience, licking their fangs in anticipation, a sick, lethal joke courtesy of the Devil. Accordingly, both the Dead trilogy and Drag Me to Hell feature heinous and weirdly disproportionate punishments for actions that are only faintly callous, or even completely innocuous. It does raise the question: What are we to make of Raimi's apparent contention that one can blunder into damnation simply by doing one's job? (Admittedly, a loan officer burning in hell is really just the updated punch-line to a lawyer joke.) The sheer cruelty of a cosmos that would allow such a thing is unsettling, to say the least, but Raimi has always been less interested in establishing overarching mythologies than creating fantastical scenarios and permitting them to play out. Christine at different times is assailed by a malevolent shadow, an undead gypsy, a goat-horned devil, an invisible force, and a homicidal handkerchief. While Raimi establishes a foundational principle for his supernatural horrors—the three-day deadline—many of his set-pieces are just free-form riffing on a fundamental fear: the nightmare of being terrorized by unholy forces.
Christine is a particularly clever choice for a heroine, containing elements as she does of a slasher film's Final Girl, the menaced "normal" of countless occult thrillers, and even a bit of Bruce Campbell's signature resilience and cold-blooded exasperation. (Ash might have cut off his own hand, but he never had so much hair ripped out or so many revolting substances forced down his throat.) Rohmer bestows Christine with the requisite good-girl sweetness and—eventually—a blazing hatred for her tormentor. It's not a performance that leaves a deep impression, but it is exceptionally well-suited to the film that surrounds it. And Rohmer does get some great moments, particularly a few delicious deadpan lines and a fresh take on the expression, "Here Kitty, Kitty..."
Drag Me to Hell operates according to Raimi's particular blend of lucidity and unreality. By this I mean that his narrative is coherent, even elegant, as it ushers Christine from Points A to B to C. There is none of the aimlessness that often characterizes the genre, nor does his heroine ever do anything woefully stupid (although she makes a couple of understandable but tragic blunders). Still, an aura of the preposterous clings to the film, providing ample meat for nitpickers. Dozens of people behind a doorway can be dead silent one moment, then boisterously dancing and feasting the next. Los Angeles can boast a gothic graveyard with a violent thunderstorm as backdrop. When Christine's plight requires an anvil hanging from a pulley, one is provided, in Bugs Bunny fashion. Whether this sort of thing is troubling depends on whether the viewer is willing to accept Drag Me to Hell on its own succulent terms, as an exquisite device for extracting squeals of terror. The ending, a shocker to stand alongside Carrie and Friday the 13th, is just the ghastly cherry on top.