Drag Me to Hell, co-written and directed by Sam Raimi, is a return to horror after a ten year sabbatical in which he become one of the world’s most lucrative film makers in making the Spiderman trilogy. Following a path in parallel to fellow splatter-master Peter Jackson and his Lord of the Rings, he was entrusted to helm one of the biggest franchises in cinema history perhaps because of his ability to wring entertainment from limited resources. However, far less than Jackson, Raimi stuck to his guns, producing films (forgetting the final instalment) that were as engaging and human as they were exciting and humorous.
But it’s clear that Raimi had his own fish to fry. Following a script created more than fifteen years before, Drag Me to Hell riffs on modern preoccupations while having foundations in classic Twilight Zone tropes. Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is an aspiring bank loan manager. In a moment of cold aspiration, she refuses eerie Sylvia Ganesh (Lorna Raver) an extension on her home loan. Shaming her, the caricatured gypsy places a grievous curse upon Christine. She will be visited ever more violently by a Lamia over three days, when it will finally come to Drag. Her To. Hell.
It’s perhaps disingenuous to say this is a return to horror for Raimi. At its best, his work has never been truly dedicated to scaring as much as smiling, or more often, guffawing. It now seems a testament to the complete tone deafness of the BBFC during the video nasties that films as uproarious and indecently silly as Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2 would be banned.
Drag Me to Hell is a more complex beast still. Raimi is still capable of delivering on the level of gross out – one example that stays in the mind is Sylvia violently sucking on Christine’s chin in an epic punchout (worthy of Raimi’s classic They Live six-minute tussle).
But this is a movie of two creatures – the ridiculous Sylvia (and anyone who worries about the depiction of gypsies should perhaps consider how much Raimi is aiming at verisimilitude) but also the creeping terror of the Lamia. It’s a fantastic doubleplay, with the two beasts striking two tones as Raimi alternates between making us laugh with horror and then chill us with it. It’s as though he is standing offscreen urging us to be scared, and then mocking us for being so, then as we become comfortable, using our ease to scare us further.
The more chilling aspects of the film are most often carried by the superb sound design. Flies are used as a visual motif to warn of the coming of the Lamia, but the soundtrack picks up the sound ably, with insistent violin hum taking up the sound of the insect. There’s no simple quietLOUD scares, but unnerving surround which gives the film an uneasy quality even in its lighter scenes.
Raimi avoids the pitfalls of a nouveau riche (as it were) filmmaker, instead relying on the instincts that put him in that position in the first place. He could easily have used big name actors but choose to employ mid-level and character actors to great effect. Justin Long is worth singling out for his awkwardly believable but supportive boyfriend. He reads the lines with real humour and warmth that makes his and Christine relationship worth caring about.
Also familiar from Raimi’s past successes is a realism to the dialogue that suggests that it’s not a mere segue to the next set piece (indeed, recent revelations about Raimi’s refusal to accept a weak Spiderman 4 script seem most likely founded in his ability to write a better one himself given the inclination). That said, when the next set piece does arrive, there’s an assuredness to the way they are worked out. Raimi knows when to show restraint and when to go all out. When Christine rams a ruler down Sylvia’s throat, there’s a sick wit to his moving between a side-on view to one which shows it from Sylvia’s perspective.
There’s also a cohesion and conciseness that’s a real relief from the boggy expanses of recent genre films. Rather than taking a flight of fancy outside the world established at the beginning, it stays in the suburban and banal setting throughout. If Ash had remained in S-Mart throughout Army of Darkness, you’d be halfway to imagining Drag Me to Hell‘s world.
Raimi also knows how to wring just the right mix of the unsettling and the juvenile from a Meet The Parents scenario. Christine seems to be finally winning over her boyfriend’s parents, when the dessert she has brought begins sprouting eyes. But it’s when she attempts to quell the situation by skewering the eyeball that the scene really elevates itself, as blood oozes like some ungodly filling. Raimi knows how to really play with the awkwardness of these moments, more than can be said of any number of ‘Wha Happened?’ films that make this kind of set-piece their stock in trade.
Unashamedly entertaining, it feels close to a filmmaker’s sabbatical. Shelved for over fifteen years, it seems Raimi is now finally in the position to make the films he has always want to, in a way that only experience can teach.