It doesn’t pay to be a nice guy (or gal) in a Sam Raimi horror movie. The “Spider-Man” director likes to torture people, especially the really nice ones. Just ask Ash from the “Evil Dead” films. Sam Raimi’s latest plaything is Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), a bank loan officer in “Drag me to hell”, the director’s first return to the horror genre since 1992’s “The Army of Darkness”. The film is billed as Raimi’s return to low-budget horror, but let’s face it, nowadays what qualifies as “low budget” would have been ultra high-budget back in 1979, when Raimi first made “Evil Dead” with Bruce Campbell. For everyone waiting to see the director of mega-budget comic book movies return to his horror roots, “Drag me to Hell” is a good first salvo.
In “Drag me to hell”, our gal Christine has her eyes on the prize – that Assistant Managers position sitting tantalizingly nearby, the same gig asshole co-worker Stu (Reggie Lee) is also gunning for. To convince her boss, the improbably named Jim Jacks (David Paymer) that she’s capable of making the tough decisions, Christine turns down a loan extension for the disgustingly old, decrepit, and as it turns out, vengeful gypsy Miss Ganush (Lorna Raver). Soon, Christine finds herself under a gypsy curse, with the promise of being dragged to hell by a ruthless demon within three days. Talk about an argument for slacking off on the job!
As he’s wont to do with his heroes, Sam Raimi puts Christine through the ringer for much of the film, with the poor girl getting all sorts of mental and physical nastiness thrown at her, from being literally tossed around every inch of her hilltop home to ominous breezes waiting around every corner. With the promise of Hell looming in her near future, Christine, who volunteers at animal shelters on weekends, begins to consider all manner of escape, from animal sacrifices to making amends with the crazy gypsy broad. Alas, by the time Christine comes to accept that something evil is afoot, Ganush has gone and gotten herself dead, leaving Christine with little choice before her three days are up. Plenty of time, that is, for Sam Raimi to dish out further punishment upon our plucky heroine.
Alison Lohman (“Big Fish”), as the object of the gypsy curse, makes for a sympathetic lead, even when her character is being less than heroic. The poor girl’s just trying to get ahead and prove her boyfriend Clay’s parents wrong, after all, it’s not like she’s going to gut her cat – oh wait, never mind. Lohman balances sweet farm girl and growing desperation like a pro, and through all the rough patches, keeps us right rooting her on. Or at least, I was rooting for her to keep her soul. Justin Long is serviceable as the wise-ass but generally supportive boyfriend, and Dileep Rao as a psychic who comes to Christine’s rescue has his moments.
Although “Drag me to Hell” isn’t anywhere near the “low-budget” horror that the studio tried to sell it as, the film does benefit from a mostly low-tech approach. For the most part, anyway. Raimi would be a fool to completely abandon the technical advances in Hollywood special effects, so there are some CGI indulgences here and there. But for the most part, Raimi does seem to be making every effort to keep the film as physically real as possible, achieving most of his desired moods through outlandish angles and creative use of the camera.
Horror-wise, “Drag me to Hell” is less scary than it is gross. Putting a CG fly into Alison Lohman’s nose as she sleeps, or throwing the toothless Ganush at her, mouth agape and all, will make the viewer squirm, but they probably won’t be grabbing their seats with fear. The shock moments, sound effects, and physical stunts are more cartoony than scary, and viewers are liable to get a laugh out of the film’s many obvious stunts. In that respect, a PG-13 rating is probably irrelevant, as the film is more gross and squirm-worthy than actually frightening. That is, unless you’re easily spooked, in which case DON’T LOOK THERE’S SOMEONE BEHIND YOU!
There are moments, though, that I felt like I was watching another director trying to ape a Sam Raimi movie instead of a movie by Sam Raimi. While it looks and feels like classic Raimi, “Drag me to Hell” is missing the “devil may care” attitude that made the “Evil Dead” films such wicked fun. In a lot of ways, having a budget has ruined Raimi’s creativity, and one gets the sense that while he is trying to return to his old school horror roots, he’s still unable to completely shake loose the standards imposed on him by civilized society, aka mainstream Hollywood. For instance, although Raimi feeds a fly into Christine’s mouth and we get a brief fly-centered gag later on, the pay-off isn’t nearly as wild or effective as what a 1979 Sam Raimi would have gone for. Tree branch rape, anyone?
While by no means a classic, “Drag me to Hell” is nonetheless a good, fun movie that should make some people squeamish, but shouldn’t keep anyone up at nights. For anyone who has never seen the director’s earlier works, this is a good, though not great example of what Raimi could do without the high expectations of a studio franchise hanging over his head. To be honest with you, I’m not sure if Raimi could ever reacquire the old Sam that made “Evil Dead” with some buddies in the woods of Tennessee back in the winter of 1979. Sure, Raimi can still go “old school” every now and then, but let’s face it, the results will always be more “Army of Darkness” than “Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn”.
Sam Raimi (director) / Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi (screenplay)
CAST: Alison Lohman … Christine Brown
Justin Long … Clay Dalton
Lorna Raver … Sylvia Ganush
Dileep Rao … Rham Jas
David Paymer … Jim Jacks
Adriana Barraza … Shaun San Dena
Chelcie Ross … Leonard Dalton
Reggie Lee … Stu Rubin