Many moons ago, director Sam Raimi made a low budget horror film called The Evil Dead (1981). The plot was ridiculous, the dialogue was hokey and the acting was mostly abysmal. It also happened to be brilliant, making an instant cult hero of star Bruce Campbell, and going on to become one the most rented films of all time. What marked the film out was its inventiveness: dynamically jarring camera angles and moves, clever pacing of its jumps and frights, a boldly experimental sound design and score, but along with the terrifying horror a blackly comical tone clearly informed by slapstick. Here was a young new director bursting with fresh ideas about horror filmmaking, and what it could do simultaneously to entertain and to thrill.
Fast-forward 28 years and Raimi, now a big Hollywood player after helming the massively successful Spider-Man film franchise, has returned to the genre which he first made his name. It may seem a curious move for a director now used to making blockbusters to return to low-budget horror, but his bigger films have to me have always seemed like merely upscaled versions of his earlier work, with coincident themes and characters. What is striking about Drag Me To Hell is just how exhilarating his style has remained, all these years later.
The story concerns Christine, an ambitious but good-hearted loan officer at a bank with one eye on the vacant assistant manager desk across the office from her. She is urged by her boss to make tough decisions if she wants to succeed against Stu, her irritating rival for the job, and so when a grotesque and classically ‘sub-prime’ elderly woman comes to her begging for some financial help to stop her being evicted from her house, Christine is reluctantly unforviving.
However, like the hapless Ash before her, she doesn’t know what she’s letting herself in for. The elderly woman, shamed by events in the bank earlier, returns at the end of the day to attack our young protagonist as she tries to drive home from work. After a protracted struggle, the lady mysteriously removes a button from Christine’s coat. Later that evening, confused by the incident, she visits a conveniently placed friendly neighbourhood fortune teller, who informs her of her dire situation: she has been cursed by a dark spirit, which will visit her in physical form over the coming days, and as the film’s prologue has delightfully shown us has happened to others before, she will then be literally dragged through the ground to an eternal fiery inferno.
The film takes its time setting all of this up, probably to the disappointment of those expecting wall-to-wall horror, but in being patient with the story, director Raimi is then allowed to do what he does best: violently assaulting his main character in as many comical different ways as can be imagined. Fans of the abuse meted out to Bruce Campbell will delight in the various ways poor Christine is flung around, tossed up in the air and generally harassed by ghosts both real and imagined, and as she is thrown into ever more of a paranoid frenzy she pictures the elderly Gypsy woman invading her life in increasingly horrible ways.
Christine is played by a radiant (initially, at least) Alison Lohman, apparently a last-minute stand-in for Ellen ‘Juno’ Page, not that you would notice. Similarly baby-faced and playing things entirely straight-faced, she makes for a sympathetic lead, much like Jess Weixler’s little-girl-lost in Teeth (2007). Support comes from her drippy boyfriend Clay, but whose disapproving parents make for a hilariously awkward dinner party scene where Christine, eager to make a good impression, ends up screaming and flinging her chardonnay across the room. Not the way to ingratiate yourself with the future in-laws.
There are possibly some questions which should be asked about the film’s presentation of Gypsies, but tasteless is what Raimi does well, and I feel that there is nothing malicious here, perhaps just a little naïve and childish. There are also curious moral questions raised: if placed with such a curse, what would one do to rid yourself of it? Would an animal-lover be willing to perform a sacrifice? Would a good-natured soul be happy to condemn another to suffer her fate instead? All this is framed by Christine’s initial refusal to help someone else for her own gain, a timely message given the recent messy history of global financial mismanagement.
The laughs are funny, and typically Raimian – gross-out bodily fluids, Three Stooges-esque physical comedy – and the scares when they come are typically well-crafted, but the film never feels quite like a true classic. The artificially metronomic pacing of the jumps, which worked so well in the claustrophobia of the Evil Dead cabin, is not so menacing in the urban environment. The frayed edges of the characterization – that Christine was raised on a farm, that she used to be overweight, and that her mother is an alcoholic – are casually thrown in to advance the story without much care. And at 99 minutes the film is probably about 10 minutes too long, and drags noticeably in places.
All said, this is still the work of a master horror director, albeit a minor work. For its flaws, there are still the unmistakeable hallmarks of Sam Raimi’s genius as a filmmaker is uniquely able to scare and entertain at the same time, and for that it is essential viewing.
*EDIT* There is sadly no Bruce Campbell present, though one character looks like a surrogate for him. Raimi geeks will, however, be reassured that ‘the Classic’ is present, as ever.