Drag Me to Hell

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/29/09 00:04:35

"When A Wizened Crone Asks For a Mortgage Extension, You Say "Yes"!"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Ever since he solidified his position as Hollywood’s most unexpected A-list filmmaker with the enormously successful “Spider Man” trilogy, fans of Sam Raimi have been clamoring for him to return to his cheerfully schlocky B-movie roots. More specifically, they have been clamoring for him to make “Evil Dead 4,” a long-hoped-for continuation of the bizarre and bloody trilogy of low-budget cult favorites that he first made his name with a couple of decades earlier. My guess is that Raimi is never going to make that film himself--even if he and star-collaborator Bruce Campbell somehow figured out a way of topping the wildness seen in the earlier films (the only real reason to do such a thing in the first place) and convincing a studio to actually pay for it (although huge hits on video, the films have never done especially well in theatrical release), the sheer Herculean efforts of pulling it off would probably kill both of them in the process--but the idea of doing a quick and deliberately trashy horror film along those lines must have appealed to him as a way of both satisfying his longtime fans and recharging his creative batteries after doing three massive superhero epics in a row. This approach may fly in the face of most normal directorial career trajectories--most filmmakers, as a rule, do not use the clout they have amassed as the director of some of the biggest movies ever made to make a cheesy horror movie at a fraction of the budgets they have grown accustomed to--but that is what he has done with his latest film, the gloriously gross “Drag Me to Hell.” No, it isn’t “Evil Dead 4” but in many ways, it serves as a continuation of those films--it takes a fairly standard genre tale and gooses it with a combination of silly humor, startling scares and gags (in every sense of the world) that are simultaneously so goofy and gruesome that you won’t know whether to laugh or barf. Trust me, in a film of this type, that kind of comment is high praise indeed.

Alison Lohman stars as Christine Brown, a sweet-natured loan officer at a local bank, a position for which being sweet-natured is not necessarily considered to be an asset. Indeed, she is constantly being undermined by Stu (Reggie Lee), a sleazy co-worker who is her chief competition for the coveted assistant manager position , while her boss (David Paymer) fears that she may lack the killer instinct required for the job. She goes back to her desk to meet her next applicant and discovers that she is Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), an ancient Gypsy woman who needs a third extension on her mortgage so as not to be evicted from her home of thirty years. Even though the decision to give the woman the extension is hers, Christine decides to prove to her boss that she has what it takes to make the “tough decisions” and turns her down. Not surprisingly, when Mrs. Ganush hears this news, she doesn’t exactly take it with quiet grace--she elaborately begs Christine for help and when she doesn’t get it, she attacks her on the grounds that she has been publicly shamed and is dragged out of the bank. That night, when Christine is retrieving her car from a parking garage, she is attacked again by Mrs. Ganush and in the midst of their epic struggle (almost entirely contained within the confines of Christine’s modest-sized car), she grabs a button off of Christine’s coat, mutters some incantation and then hands it back to her with the promise that “Soon it will be you who comes begging to me.”

Yes, Christine is now under the spell of a good old-fashioned Gypsy curse, one that--according to street-front psychic Rham Jas (Dileep Rao)--will find an unseen presence known as “Lamia” torturing her for the next three days by filling her head with strange and increasingly annoying noises not heard outside of your standard Blue Man Group performance, gruesome hallucinatory visions and smacking her across the room while inspiring nosebleeds that would seem at home in a Sam Peckinpah movie. Her well-meaning but painfully square boyfriend (Justin Long) tries to convince her that it is all in her head but Christine knows better than that. Alas, when Christine goes to beg Mrs. Ganush for forgiveness, she finds that the old woman is in no condition to lift the curse (or anything else) and realizes that she is going to have to take matters into her own hands if she is to lift the curse and survive. To pull this off, however, require the assistance of a psychic (Adrianna Barraza) who, luckily enough, battled this exact same demon in the film’s prologue, a trip to a graveyard in the dead of night in a torrential rainstorm and the kind of “tough decision” that makes her work at the bank seem like child.

As has been the case with most of his other self-generated genre efforts (the “Evil Dead” movies, the somewhat underrated “Crimewave” and the mock superhero near-epic “Darkman”), the screenplay that Raimi has conjured up (this time in conjunction with brother Ivan) tells the kind of tale that almost seems too slight to serve as the basis for an average campfire story--it is essentially a paper-thin construct consisting of a bunch of big “Boo” moments and gross-out gags tenuously linked together and any subtext to be had (such as any potential commentary on the current economic crisis) comes across as more inadvertent than anything else. (One wonders if it would have played the same way with audiences if it had been released last summer instead of now.) This might sound like a recipe for disaster--or at least the recipe for yet another crappy PG-13 horror film aimed squarely at slack-jawed kids who wouldn’t recognize a good example of the genre if it slapped them in the face (the kind that Raimi himself has been executive-producing for the last few years through his Ghost House production company--out of kindness, I will forgo supplying any names) --but it works surprisingly well here because Raimi has not lost his touch for coming up with inspired versions of those necessary “Boo” moments and gross-out gags.

Yes, Raimi unexpectedly springs visions of Mrs. Ganush upon us a lot throughout the film but he times most of them in such a way that they never quite happen exactly when we expect them to and as a result, he still manages to startle viewers with this particular trick even as the film enters the late innings. As for the gross stuff, Raimi has focused almost entirely on the notion of one vile thing after another finding its way into Christine’s mouth. Again, this sort of thing could get real old real quick but Raimi pulls these moments off with such cheerfully depraved aplomb that when he flat-out repeats one of the most memorable bits from “Evil Dead II,” it works so well that you don’t even resent the self-plagiarism. Besides, even if you find these bits growing a bit old after a while, Raimi does come up with two glorious set-pieces, the aforementioned garage attack (including the best screen appearance from a stapler since “Office Space”) and a bit where Christine is confronted with a slice of cake with an exceptionally grisly filling, that are as inspired as anything that he has ever done. (By the way, old school horror fans who have looked upon this film with a certain degree of suspicion ever since its PG-13 rating was announced can rest easy--there is so much icky stuff on display here that I am actually kind of surprised that it didn’t actually wind up with the “R” rating after all.)

If there is a major flaw to “Drag Me to Hell,” it is the fact that in the effort to get the film up to a feature length, there is a certain amount of unnecessary padding that kicks in at about the halfway point to fill time before the final act clicks into high gear--you get the sense that it might had even more of a punch if it had been stripped down to an hour and been transformed into the most expensive and effective “Master of Horror” episode ever produced. (Of course, the B-movie trash that Raimi is clearly evoking here was usually guilty of padding things out as well.) Aside from that, while this may not be the best film that Raimi has done in recent years (those would be “A Simple Plan” and “Spider Man 2”), it is by far the liveliest and most energetic thing that he has done since the days of “Darkman” and “Army of Darkness” and for fans of gooshy horror nonsense in general and his version of gooshy horror nonsense in particular will find a lot to love here. You’ve got a spunky heroine who gradually becomes less of a goody-two-shoes as you begin to realize exactly what she is capable of doing in order to save herself. You have a villain who is gruesome and nasty as all get out who nevertheless deserves a certain amount of sympathy. You have a lot of in-joke references to Raimi’s earlier films that will elicit knowing chuckles from certain audience members (such as the appearance of a certain car and a reference to an upcoming trip to a cabin in the woods) and a lot of perfectly done gags, figuratively and literally, that will have everyone else chuckling and chucking in equal measure. It even manages to come up with an ending that manages to be both slightly surprising as well as eminently satisfying. “Drag Me to Hell” may be junk but it is junk of such a high degree that I can’t imagine anyone failing to respond to its grubby charms.

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