Drag Me to Hell

(Originally published on the Examiner in October 2009, this review has been moved here in its entirety.)

The pulp-fiction title provides one clue, the quite literal visual depiction of said title one more. And sure enough, Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell is to horror films what the spring's Taken was to action movies: a satisfying, straightforward, well-made example of its genre, smart enough not to take itself too seriously, but self-possessed enough to avoid smug camp. Such films become rarer and rarer as Hollywood finds itself torn between high-profile (though not necessarily highbrow) adaptations and lowest-common denominator schlock, usually with a self-consciously "ironic" edge. For relief, there's the occasional clever, high-concept movie, but pure genre films - which satisfy an itch, do so with great skill and craft, and don't feel it's necessary to saturate themselves in a jokey postmodernism - have largely fallen by the wayside in the 00s.

Yet one of Drag Me to Hell's virtues is that it feels so unpretentious: the concept is more or less summed up by the title (we begin with one unlucky victim literally being dragged down to hell; for the rest of the film our heroine will try to avoid the same fate), and the execution is an exercise in evoking good, solid, jumpy thrills. After the 1960s prologue in which a young Hispanic boy is sucked through the earth by demons, we settle on the initially mundane life of our protagonist, Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), a loan officer gunning for promotion, while trying to avoid insecurity in her relationship with hotshot academic Clay Dalton (Justin Long). Her well-ordered life spins out of control when she denies a demonic old gypsy woman an extension on her mortgage; furious that she will be losing her home, the hag attacks Christine in the office and then jumps her in the parking lot, initiating one of the scariest/funniest carjackings in recent memory. Christine quickly comes to realize that the gypsy has cursed her - in three days she will be going to hell unless she finds some way out of the curse. With the help of a psychic, her freaked-out boyfriend, and eventually a talking goat, she tries to do just that.

The plot is rather ridiculous, but rather than try to complexify or satirize their storyline, the writers (Raimi and his brother Ivan) just run with it. Although she won't be pleasing any real-life gypsies with this portrayal, Lorna Raver is suitably horrific as the old hag (at one point, her dentures dispensed, she gums her victims' chin with ferocious gusto). Raver's performance, both disturbing and darkly amusing, sets the tone for the movie: acknowledging the inherent campiness of the material, but quickly moving on to more important matters, like grossing us out and occasionally giving us the creeps. (The old lady is not terrifying so much as revolting, but in a very fun way.)

Raimi, who pioneered a new form of horror/comedy with his iconic Evil Dead trilogy, is certainly no genre naif. That he largely chooses to play it straight is a testament both to his faith in horror traditions and his confidence in his own ability to manipulate and entertain audiences. Or does he "play it straight"? That interpretation will be doubted by some, even by many. Scott Tobias in the AV Club, celebrating Drag Me to Hell as "junk film-making at its finest" claims that Raimi wants us "to nudge each other over the transcendent ridiculousness" of what we're seeing. And a writer on IMDb declares the film "a live action EC comic". Fair enough - but there's a goofy sincerity to the ridiculousness (which only makes it more ridiculous, and more enjoyable) - and a warmly rendered sense of nostalgia inherent the IMDb writer's analogy. Even while aware of its pulpiness, Drag Me to Hell doesn't make much of this aspect, a refreshing approach to irony in this day and age.

Ultimately, the film can be enjoyed equally by kids looking for a grotesque good time, by cinephiles appreciating a fine filmmaker's craftsmanship and classical storytelling (itself a rarity in today's twisty-turny, multistory narratives), and by those who dig the wacky nastiness of the set pieces and the often silly behavior of the characters (who nonetheless are played straight).

Fair warning, though: animal-lovers will not be so pleased, and may feel that the threatening statement of the title can't come soon enough for our sweet-faced heroine.

2 comments:

Stephen said...

Great review, MovieMan.

I really enjoyed it (especially the car scene and the bit with the anvil).

Just some points I'd like to share:

1
Everything revolves around Christine's mouth. It's the first we see of her in the rear-view mirror practising her vowels. The amount of things that go into or out of her mouth is incredible. This is because her mouth represents both her greed (former 'fat girl') and her insecurity about her class (the speech lessons etc.).

2
I liked how the end took place in a train station. A train station is used as a place to start a new journey, a place of romance but also, of course, a place to say goodbye(!). By using the platform of a train station, Raimi can play with these expectations.

3
At some point when discussing Jung Rham Jas (I think that's his name) says 'that's because he wasn't afraid to bring God into the equation'. When you are cursed to go to hell surely your first port of call is the man with the form in defeating the devil - God.

Maybe it is Raimi who is afraid to bring God into the equation because he knows that would God would fail.

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks, Stephen - and as for God, it's interesting how many horror films (and non-horror films) play freely with the concepts of the devil, hell, and damnation without ever bringing their analogues into play. (What was the last mainstream movie you saw which employed God, except perhaps as a playfully humanized comic foil ala Bruce Almighty?) Whether this says something about modern conditions or merely about narrative and genre conventions is up for debate, but I find it fascinating nonetheless.