Movie Review: Drag Me to Hell
By Matthew Huntley
June 8, 2009
Sam Raimi has a knack for making genre pictures that aren't so easily defined. Whether he's directing horror (The Evil Dead), drama (A Simple Plan) or action-adventure (Spider-Man), he always finds a way to mix things up, especially by adding comedy. In the end, his movies have a lot of disparate elements that probably shouldn't go together, but somehow do.
With Drag Me to Hell, Raimi returns to his horror roots and brings with him his old bag of tricks — practical effects, goofy caricatures, bizarre violence and a lot of screaming victims, all of which are still in working order. While watching the movie, I sensed Raimi wasn't making it to merely appease fans of his Evil Dead trilogy, or as a way to offer penance for the laborious Spider-Man 3. He made it because he had an inspired idea and decided to execute it the old-fashioned way, which works splendidly.
Yes, the movie is often terrifying, gory and contains the usual battles between good and evil. But, and this is the tricky part, it's also funny and cheekily aware of its own absurdity, although it never makes that part obvious. In the back of our minds, we know the filmmakers are laughing behind the scenes at the moments that are supposed to be taken seriously in the movie's world. This is where Raimi earns points on two different levels — on one hand, he's made a horrific film with ghastly and disturbing images, which are sure to garner adulation from die-hard horror fans; on the other, he's made a subtle farce. Somehow, he gets away with both, probably because he helped pioneer this combination back in the '80s with actor Bruce Campbell.
The plot is reminiscent of classic horror. It reminded me of The Outer Limits and the Masters of Horror series. A female loan officer named Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is competing for the assistant manager position at her bank. Her boss, Mr. Jacks (David Paymer), tells her she needs to be more aggressive, which is why she denies a credit extension to Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), a despondent Russian woman who looks like the old witch from Hansel and Gretel. Kudos to the makeup and special effects teams for making Raver appear hideous and grotesque. She's the epitome of ugly, with dirty brown nails, detachable teeth and an assortment of bodily fluids that come out of her mouth (Raimi doesn't hold back).
After Christine denies Mrs. Ganush more credit, the old woman puts a curse on her. For three days, Christine will be tormented by a demonic spirit, which will eventually drag her to hell. That is, unless Christine can stop it. To combat the evil presence, she seeks out a fortune teller (Dileep Rao) and seer (Adriana Barraza), who first experienced the same apparition 40 years ago. Standing by Christine is her loving boyfriend, Clay (Justin Long), who actually believes her ordeal instead of simply writing her off as a crazy person. It's amusing when, despite everything she's going through, Clay brings her home to meet his parents, which doesn't exactly go so well, what with all the flies and possessed pound cake.
There are many freakish and creepy scenes in Drag Me to Hell (the PG-13 rating is a mystery to me; why not just add more and make it a hard R?), but the counterpoint to this is its humor, and as the movie teeter-tottered between horror and comedy, I became more immersed in it as an experience. I didn't care whether it scared me or made me laugh (it did both); I only cared that it affected me. The look of the movie and all the practical effects are fascinating. The sets alone are enough to make your skin crawl, while the violence is viscerally exciting because we're never sure what's going to happen next (I dare you to try and call the shots when Christine and Mrs. Ganush face off in Christine's car).
Many viewers will think Drag Me to Hell is "pure Raimi" material, and they'll be right, but that's not the reason to see the movie. The reason is because it's entertaining and well made. Raimi is a visionary storyteller and he refreshes some classic horror elements, including the intentionally dated and artificial effects. Consider the scene when the demon inhabits a Spanish servant, whose body suspends mid-air, obviously with the help of wires. I think we're supposed to be aware of what's holding him up, which tells me Raimi not only wants to deliver horror, but he also wants to celebrate what goes into making horror. He wants to scare us, yes, but he also wants to remind us how fun (and funny) it is to be scared. Raimi was clearly having a blast on the set, and even though we enjoy the movie in its purest form (as we should), we pick up and appreciate the filmmaker's own enthusiasm, which is an added bonus.