Drag Me To Hell
Directed by Sam Raimi
Starring Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver, Dileep Rao,
Release date: May 29, 2009
“There are three rules. Law number one is The Innocent Must Suffer. Law number two is The Guilty Must Be Punished. And the third law is You Must Taste Blood To Be A Man. We’re working now on a fourth law, The Dead Shall Walk; but we’re not sure whether or not it’s universal.” – Sam Raimi
I love Sam Raimi and that special power of his to take all the unrestrained visual madness constantly bursting forth from his medulla oblongata and shape it into something wonderfully entertaining. I have missed him in the years since he started seeking respectability. The impish son of Polish Jews from the frozen wilds of Michigan got his start directing crazed Super 8 short films loaded with slapstick violence when he was just a kid. Over the years he built up a company of repertory players as full of imagination and crazed bravado as he was, the most prominent members being actor Bruce Campbell and producer Robert Tapert. This team under Raimi’s refreshingly unpretentious direction refused to buckle under the pressures of Hollywood conformity and brought us a veritable slew of genre-defying classics such as the Evil Dead trilogy and Darkman.
Then Raimi broke from his posse and struck out on his own into the wilderness of mainstream success. His hyperkinetic directorial style was clamped way down on films like A Simple Plan and The Gift and was only occasionally let out to play on the Spider-Man trilogy as Raimi pursued stories that valued emotion and character over visual razzle dazzle. He defied expectations to deliver movies that were better than they had any right to be, but that crazy old Raimi black magic was sorely missed. Rumors of a fourth Evil Dead and even a remake of the original were batted around but never seemed to gain momentum while Raimi and Tapert’s low budget horror boutique label Ghost House Pictures floundered with substandard assembly line product like the Grudge movies and Boogeyman. Tension could be seen building in Sam Raimi. The man was sick of being Thor. He was ready to unleash his inner Loki and reign chaos onto his celluloid canvas once more, to inject adrenaline into the cameras and make the sound system rumble like the gods on their bowling league night. He was ready to bring us Drag Me to Hell!
Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is an enterprising young loan officer at a Los Angeles bank looking to move into a recently vacated assistant manager’s position. The decision is up to her prickly boss Mr. Jacks (David Paymer), and it is leaning toward the office brownnoser Stu Rubin (Reggie Lee) since Christine tends to be too flexible with the bank’s loan customers. One day into her world walks Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), a decrepit and frightening-looking old gypsy woman desperate for an extension on a loan to save her home from foreclosure. Christine, despite her unease, is sympathetic but rejects the woman’s pleas for help in order to further her career. That night after leaving work, Mrs. Ganush returns and attacks Christine in her car. A brutal fight occurs ending with the vicious crone placing a gypsy curse upon Christine, who can only understand one word: “Lamia”.
With her loving college professor boyfriend Clay Dalton (Justin Long) she pays a visit to fortune teller Rham Jas (Dileep Rao) for answers. Rham tells her that Ganush placed upon her the curse of the Lamia, the most dreaded of all demons, and according to him Christine will be tormented without mercy by the demon for three days. On the fourth day the Lamia will take her to Hell to burn and suffer for all eternity. Clay is reluctant to believe any of this but it does not matter for Christine will face the worse mental and physical tortures unless she can find a way to free herself of the curse with the help of Rham and a seer named Shaun San Dena (Adriana Barraza), who has first hand experience dealing with the nightmare of the Lamia. There are ways Christine can do this, but to do so she herself may have to find her own inner evil. Otherwise, this little angel is going to Hell.
Drag Me to Hell is Sam Raimi unleashed. This is the kind of movie, which he co-wrote with brother Ivan Raimi, he has wanted to make ever since he arrived in Tinseltown. Not even the dreaded PG-13 rating could detract from this joyfully delirious widescreen nightmare that could very well be one of Raimi’s best films. There is a lot of gore in this movie but the blood content is pretty low. Raimi’s decision to have his characters, in particular the loathsome Mrs. Ganush, shed all manners of slime and goo recalls a similar move he made in the making of Evil Dead 2, but back then his decision was motivated by a desire to avoid an X rating that was awarded to the original Evil Dead (which was ultimately released unrated, as was Evil Dead 2). Sam Raimi has always marched to the beat of his own undead drummer. He will always go left when most other genre filmmakers are going right in an orderly fashion like lemmings marching off a cliff. There is an energy, an operatic fury, and a childlike vitality in his movies that is rarely seen in horror cinema and can only be matched, but never bettered, by filmmakers like Peter Jackson and Robert Rodriguez. Drunk on the limitless possibilities of the moving picture Raimi will never hesitate to charge into the action headfirst with a devilish smile on his face, and he will definitely never hesitate to use his actors as human shields.
Raimi’s horror movies are grand symphonies of madness and mayhem that achieve a twisted rhythm as the story progresses. He gives us a quiet scene, lures us into a sense of calm, and before we realize it Raimi springs his trap and scares the holy hell out of us. Damn if we do not love him for that! The horror genre has been swimming in a sea of extreme violence and torture completely bereft of imagination. Sam Raimi shows us that all of the killing implements and torture devices built by cinema’s best special effects artisans can not buy you a good old fashioned jump out of your seat. Drag Me to Hell has more than a few of these in its arsenal as well as a few callbacks to the classics of the director’s career. Raimi knows better than to be the boy who cried wolf constantly faking us out with cheap shocks on the order of “it was only the cat” (there is a cat in this movie but you don’t want to know what happens to it). What makes Drag Me to Hell stand out from Raimi’s past horror classics is that the story functions as a gothic morality fable, a cautionary tale that Rod Serling and O. Henry would greatly admire. Our sympathies lie with Christine but there are times when we have to question whether or not she has made the right choices. Horror has always been one of the best outlets for writers and filmmakers to slip in pungent social and political commentary, and anyone who has been hit hard by the recent recession might be able to empathize in a strange way with the odious Mrs. Ganush.
The movie opens with the classic Universal Pictures logo from the 1970s and 1980s and then we are launched directly into the heart of this EC horror comic with a pulse and we are trapped there for the rest of the movie’s 99 minutes. Our sympathies lie with Christine and Raimi is the Lamia behind the camera tormenting us as the movie’s demon that sends our put-upon heroine spiraling into a nightmare from which there is no escape. Characters are not just killed, they are thrown across rooms with punishing force and subjected to the kind of horrific treatment that would make the prison guards at Guantanamo Bay grimace. Demons grab hold of human hosts and stretch their voices to dark, ragged tones screeching with terrifying warnings of the horror to come while making them do herky-jerky dances of monstrous merriment. The bowels of Hell open up more than once to unleash the terrors of the damned desiring to share their torment with the innocent. All manners of bile spew forth from every orifice. A quiet dinner with Christine’s future in-laws turns into a stomach-churning feast reminiscent of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Peter Jackson’s Braindead (a.k.a. Dead Alive, a title that makes no sense). Even the smallest moments in Drag Me to Hell are amped up full force almost to the point where the horror becomes high black comedy of the highest (and blackest) order.
The opening credits alone made me smile like the Joker as names that should be well known to horror fans scrolled across the screen while Christopher Young’s Satanic calliope music announced their arrival at this gloriously insane party, and I must say these guys definitely earned their paychecks on this one. Let’s start with that aforementioned score from Christopher Young. Young (who hails from Red Bank, New Jersey, just like Kevin Smith) has been known to fans of the horror genre ever since he scored the first two Hellraiser flicks many bloody moons ago. In the years that followed the prolific composer has left his musical stamp on films of every classification. His fantastic score for Drag Me to Hell is positively bursting with the hellish chants of the souls damned forever by the Lamia and the depraved dance it engages in with the award-worthy sound design gives every scene it underscores an effective punch to the ears.
Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger, the N and B of KNB EFX (the K, Robert Kurtzman, left the company several years ago to form his own company Precinct 13 Entertainment), first came together in 1986 to provide Evil Dead 2 with its many minions of the dark forces. With Sam Raimi returning to the horror genre it is obvious the KNB EFX boys were going to be along for the ride and once again they don’t disappoint. They are tapping the evil of a more gothic dimension this time around but their creatures never fail to put the fear in you. There is some overly obvious CGI at times and it tends to be a distraction from the more accomplished practical effects but at least the movie is not drowning in sub-par pixilation and the foam rubber and latex monstrosities on display are so good you just might forgive these minor effects offenses. Wayne Toth, another famous face among die hard genre fans thanks to his effects work on many great horror films of the past, supervises the top-notch animatronic effects. Director of photography Peter Deming returns to collaborate with Raimi for the first time since Deming was the D.P. on Evil Dead 2 more than two decades earlier and the man has not lost a step in his ability to give strong, visual life to the frightening and darkly humorous images freed from Raimi’s imagination with a wide array of skewed camera angles and unique point-of-view shots that put the audience front and center in the midst of the cold fear the characters are experiencing. Bob Murawski, the editor on almost every Raimi movie since Army of Darkness (and who also runs Grindhouse Releasing, a DVD label that specializes in the best in horror and exploitation, with Sylvester Stallone’s son Sage), returns for his sixth collaboration with the director. Murawski’s stunning expertise in molding the various elements of Raimi’s on-screen mayhem into a potent final product has never been better than it is here. The production design by Steve Saklad and the art direction by James F. Truesdale combine to give Christine Brown’s ordinary world an ever-growing heightened reality with gorgeous expressionistic sets.
Raimi originally cast Ellen Page in the role of tormented heroine Christine Brown, but apparently the sudden success of Juno went to her head and she backed out to do….whatever. Good thing because Alison Lohman, with her porcelain doll face and haunted eyes, is much more suited for Raimi to unleash his Hell on. Lohman makes her character strong and sympathetic without sacrificing an ounce of her vulnerability. Best known for his priceless comic performances, Justin Long scores very well in a dramatic performance as Christine‘s loving man Clay. His character may come across as thankless but Long imbues Clay with his natural charm and makes him a loving person willing to do anything to save the woman he loves. Dileep Rao avoids falling into a stereotypical portrayal of the Indian mystic by making his character Rham Jas a cool as a cucumber customer who is brave and empathetic to Christian’s dilemma. He is a great character and his hair is magnificent. David Paymer is not asked to do much but to play the befuddled boss but Paymer is a gifted actor who could play these notes in his sleep and it is a hoot to see him on the receiving end of some of Sam Raimi’s malevolent mischief and still keep his composure. Adriana Barraza shows up to headline a key séance scene at the beginning of the third act, so without spoiling her big moment I will say Barraza gets to indulge in a little bit of the same behavior Sam Raimi allowed the gorgeous “Ladies of The Evil Dead” to indulge in almost three decades ago. Character actors Chelcie Ross and Molly Cheek show up to lend the movie some good support as Clay’s parents in the aforementioned dinner scene. Reggie Lee makes for a fine company kiss ass as Stu. The performance in Drag Me to Hell that truly wow you is that of Lorna Raver as the hideous Mrs. Ganush. One of the great grotesques in modern horror cinema with a voice to forever haunt your dreams and cragged fingernails that resemble weather-beaten two by fours, Raver’s evil gypsy woman is worthy of comparison with iconic horror villains like Freddy Krueger and Candyman, monsters who do not feel the need to hide behind a mask. After all, it is her face with its rotted smile and burning venomous stare that was plastered loud and large on the cover of last month’s issue of Fangoria.
Seeing Drag Me to Hell on the big screen was one of the best movie-going experiences I had this year. It was a real joy to watch a great filmmaker return to doing what he loves best and this movie is 100% percent pure Sam Raimi. A vintage horror house thrill ride from a true master! I highly recommend it.
BAADASSSSS will return.