Drag Me to Hell (review)

Not Your Conventional Horror Movie

It’s not a metaphor, the title of cult-favorite director Sam Raimi’s return to his low-budget roots — sort of — with Drag Me to Hell. I spoil not. The opening sequence of this hard-to-pin-down horror sort-of comedy features a young boy who’s been afflicted with a gypsy curse getting actually dragged to the actual hell by soul-lusting demons, presumbly to suffer for all eternity for a very minor crime. Business is meant here. There’s no fooling around.

This is so we know what’s in store for Raimi’s heroine, mild-mannered bank loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), now that she has been damned by the same curse. Literally damned, it would appear.
I’ve been a fan of Raimi’s forever, since long before he shot to fame with his big-budget Spider-Man flicks. From the goofy perfection of 1987’s Evil Dead II — which Raimi made for a buck ninety-eight and, presumably, all the hot dogs star Bruce Campbell could eat — to 1990’s Darkman, which presaged the new seriousness with which comic-book movie are approached, to 1998’s A Simple Plan, a grownup dramatic thriller that may well be one of the best movies ever made, Raimi has proved himself to be a fan’s filmmaker. Whether he’s being silly or serious, he makes movies imbued with such a deep love of movies that a big ol’ film geek like myself cannot help but adore him. He’s the kind of filmmaker that intense movie fans always suspect — rightly or wrongly — is just like themselves, and we’d totally discover we’re soulmates if only we could sit and bullshit about movies for a while.

So I think my pal Sam will understand when I admit that immediately after I saw Drag Me to Hell, I succumbed to doubt. I wondered if Hell weren’t Sam Raimi enough. What I mean is, Raimi has always been over-the-top gonzo or deeply earnest and solemn and honest, and I had been expecting Hell to be either one or the other: it was either going to be something that could be described as “what if the Three Stooges made a horror flick?” (as best characterizes Evil Dead II) or downright Shakespearian in its tragedy and insight into human frailty (as A Simple Plan is). And when I saw that Hell is somewhere in the middle, I was flummoxed. Had Raimi gone soft on us? Had he lost his moxie? Had he been seduced by the succubus of Hollywood into watering down his unique vision?

But now that I’ve had time to think about it, I plead for Raimi’s forgiveness. I did not see it, at first — did not see how he is challenging the typical ethics of the modern horror story (he wrote the script with his brother, Ivan). The longer I have to think about Hell, the more it haunts me, and now I suspect that not only is Raimi daring to push the mainstream studio horror movie to a new — and uncomfortable — place, he may even be daring his longtime fans — just like me! hi, Sam! — to come along with him.

My great fear is that while Raimi’s longtime fans may be pleased, after they give this some major brain time (or before, if they’re less reflexively critical than me), Drag Me to Hell may be too subtle for mainstream audiences, who appear to demand torture porn and more overt moralism than this sly story can offer.

It’s like this. Christine Brown: Is there a sweeter, nicer name imaginable for a nice American girl? Is there’s a sweeter, nicer face that could have been attached to Christine Brown than Lohman’s (Beowulf, Where the Truth Lies)? Could more angry-making bullshit be piled on her? Her boss at the bank (David Paymer: Redbelt, Ocean’s Thirteen) treats her like his own personal assistant — fetch his lunch for him, indeed — and then degrades her for not being as hard and as cold as bank-loan-managery calls for. She’s got a sweet, nice, honest, kind, understanding boyfriend in Clay Dalton — a college prof of indeterminate discipline; but, you know: college prof! what could be less threatening? — and he’s played by Justin Long (Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story), whom I know some people find unforgivably smug in those “I’m a Mac” TV commercials, but whom I find simply adorable. It’s almost like Raimi is setting up Christine as the absolutely perfect victim, one who could not possibly deserve the literally hellish treatment she will be subjected to. As if our pity for her could not possible be questioned.

But then there’s this: Though only intermittently distinguished by the gonzo visual style that brought Raimi cult fame (but which was almost entirely absent from his Spider-Man movies), Raimi begins to suggest, in lots of crafty ways, that Christine is perhaps not quite so sweet as she seems. Oh, it’s true, Raimi brings the cinematic crazy in spots in Christine’s tale: after she maltreats (perhaps unforgivably, since she does so to further her own aims) a desperate customer, and has that gypsy curse laid upon her, there comes a sequence — it’s about an attack in her car — that everyone will be talking about as the grandly outrageous highlight of the film.

But it’s more wily, more under-the-table devious, how Raimi hints that Christine might not, in fact, warrant our pity. (This is down to Lohman, too; her performance is virtuoso in how it reflects the character’s lack of understanding about her own ambition and cunning.) We’re used to horror movies in which random characters are punished for genuinely minor infractions — engaging in premarital sex is a a typical “offense,” and indicative of a tediously conventional morality. Christine is clearly quite happily conjugal with supernice Clay, but that’s not why she’s punished here. She’s punished for far more humanistic reasons: for her selfishness, for her lack of compassion.

The more I think about Drag Me to Hell, the more I wonder whether Christine doesn’t deserve to be cursed. Maybe she deserves the torment she suffers. I don’t know that that’s something a horror movie has ever asked us to consider before.

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