October Nightmares #23: Drag Me to Hell (2009)


There was once a time when Sam Raimi was the go to guy for over-the-top horror comedies; crafting films like Evil Dead II, which perfectly married slapstick excess with unrelenting terror. It's an ethos he brought to Darkman (1990), Raimi's pre-emptive foray into the superhero genre and the Ur-Vengeful Liam Neeson film. The world of nineties graphic novels was an ideal for Raimi's unique blend of cartoonish violence and propensity towards R-rated darkness. But then in 2001 he became involved with that temptress known as Marvel and settled down - eventually having three children; Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004), and Spider-Man 3 (2007). Now, the Spider-Man trilogy is amongst the greatest superhero movies - Spider-Man 3's teenage melodrama, Retcon Man Sandman, and half-arsed Venom all look pretty good after Amazing Spider-Man 2 - but they're still a waste of Raimi's considerable talent.

Fortunately, Raimi decided he needed to unburden himself after Spider-Man 3 (yeah, I'd be fucking haunted by Harry Osborn's amnesia storyline too) and so he decided to return to the horror genre with Drag Me to Hell. It's the latest in a niche sub-genre of 'cursed by a gypsy' films; like Stephen King's Thinner (1996) but without Joe Mantegna going all peshmerga and attacking the gypsy camp with assault rifles (seriously, what the hell was that in aid of?). Or like Big (1988) sans the Zoltar Speaks machine, and creepy undercurrent as Elizabeth Perkins tries to bang the child-like Tom Hanks.
I know a few people who actually hated Drag Me to Hell as they felt it was too silly for a horror film. But that's just Raimi's style - he mixes catharsis with the ludicrously comical, hard-hitting terror with the camp. I can't really blame them for feeling this way because, as with The Road (2009), the marketing department made the rather foolhardy decision to pull the old bait and switch - showcasing the movie as a full blown horror. Because film geeks definitely appreciate such bullshit and take it in their stride... 

The film's opening likely served to confound viewer expectations - showing a rather disturbing sequence in which medium Shaun San Dena (Flor de Maria Chahua) attempts to save the soul of a young boy. She fails, of course, and demonic forces drag the poor sod off to Dante's infernal armpit. But disregarding this opening and the incredibly bleak ending, Drag Me to Hell is a deliberately overblown affair that's difficult to take completely seriously - and that's the point. I would say that, spiritually, the film works as a sort of Evil Dead 4. Before you hit send on that poorly worded hateful e-mail, let me explain why. Drag Me to Hell concerns bank loan officer Christine (Alison Lohman) who, desirous of pleasing her boss in bid to be promoted, refuses a loan to an elderly gypsy woman, Sylvia (Lorna Raver). Sylvia, angered by her humiliation, curses Christine who is consequently subjected to three days of psychological torment - and damns her soul to Hell. It's like spending a weekend at a right wing Christian re-education camp.

But the reason I made the Evil Dead 4 claim, is because Drag Me to Hell shares the series' affinity for farcical physically ruinous violence and psychological punishment. Over the course of the film Christine is scratched, strangled, gummed/licked, and has all manner of bodily fluids projected onto her (sounds like Ladies' Night at my local); she also suffers nightmarish visions of encroaching demons and bodily mutations. Like The Evil Dead franchise, it's all a bit silly and goes well beyond the boundaries of believability in regards to what the human characters can possibly endure. The main difference is that Evil Dead II was a certified Eighteen, while Drag Me to Hell is only a Fifteen, so Raimi can't exactly do the whole a sea of blood engulfing the protagonist like it's that time of the month but you've decided to have a quickie regardless. So the special effects are toned down, and somewhat cheap looking CGI is used, but it fits into Raimi's erratic reality-skewing style.

The humour is layered on pretty heavily, which makes the jump scares (the equivalent of farting in the bath in lieu of a joke) all the more effective. Most of the funniest moments stem from Raimi's juxtaposition of the gravity of Christine's situation - The Lamia demon hunting her and threatening to take her soul after three days - and the cringe-inducing pseudo-religious rituals she undergoes to save herself. Justin Long portrays the role of the put-upon boyfriend rather well, and I never imagined I'd ever be singing the praises of anyone in Die Hard 4. He accompanies Christine to new-age establishments, such as the fortune teller Rham Jas (Dileep Rao), always supportive but yet with a smarmy layer of cynicism and contempt - it's how I imagine dating a hot girl who believes in the power of crystal skulls or that the moon isn't real, to be. And of course, the seance sequence is Raimi at his most meta. It's supposed to be a blood sacrifice, for the purpose of transferring the curse to goat and then killing it. Naturally it goes awry, and somehow devolves to the point where there's a talking goat and possessed people whose behaviour suspiciously resembles that of Evil Dead's Deadites.

Raimi's return to the low budget horror-comedy scene is effective in its ability to startle and bemuse the viewer in equal measure. There's almost a dreamlike logic running throughout - who keeps an anvil in their garage, suspended by a thin rope? Wild E Coyote? But when the scares actually do come, they're all the more intense for the unexpected shift in tonality. Raimi toys with the viewer, and that is how all great horror pieces should work. Most astonishing is Lorna Raver's turn as Sylvia - going from a kindly (if rather disgusting) elderly woman, into a terrifyingly vicious individual at the drop of a phlegm-encrusted hanky - who is perhaps one of the most memorable pseudo-antagonists in recent memory. I remember attending the cinema with my young sister to see this back in 2009, and she was absolutely distraught at the ending - which is significantly darker than the rest of the movie. But what really stuck with me about Drag Me to Hell is that it is essentially a broken Aesop tale. Christine is only really doing her job, and the real asshat Stu (her colleague, played by Reggie Lee) gets away with being a colossal dong. That's akin to getting caught smoking by your parents and instead of them forcing you to smoke the full packet they get you a puppy instead.