Review: DRAG ME TO HELL

An archive review from The Gingold Files.

By Michael Gingold · May 27, 2019, 2:07 PM EDT
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DRAG ME TO HELL (2009)

Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on May 27, 2009, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

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The advertising pitch on Drag Me to Hell is that it marks Sam Raimi’s return to “pure horror,” but anyone familiar with the director’s work knows that he was never really there to begin with. Even passages of his very first Evil Dead were informed as much by the Three Stooges as by George A. Romero, and his approach to the tenets of screen fear have only become more playful with time. So his latest is not the ultimate experience in grueling terror that some might be expecting or hoping for—but it is a Hell of a lot of fun.

You can see a bit of the Stooges here in several moments of cranial abuse with assorted found objects, and one key sequence is so Evil Dead II that it only lacks someone screeching, “I’ll swallow your soul!” In fact, Raimi gleefully mixes influences from throughout horror history, juxtaposing shadow-on-the-wall creepiness of the type dating back to the original Nosferatu with up-to-the-minute gross-outs that assure this PG-13 release will still satisfy his staunchest devotees. The director’s old motto of “The gore the merrier” may not be strictly followed, but “Slime’s no crime” is very much in evidence.

The bulk of that effluvia is spewed from the mouth etc. of Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), an elderly gypsy woman who puts a whammy on bank worker Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) after Christine denies her a third extension on her mortgage payment. Christine’s been trying to impress her pitiless boss, Jim Jacks (played by David Paymer and evidently named after Raimi’s A Simple Plan and The Gift producer, for reasons that will probably have to wait for the audio commentary), by showing that she can harden her heart and make the tough decisions too, but this one turns out to be tougher than she thought. After a subsequent encounter with Mrs. Ganush in a parking garage that requires her to make inappropriate use of a stapler, Christine learns that she has been cursed, and is fated to experience horrible apparitions and violent assaults for three days before being conveyed to the hot place.

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The setup thus set up, Raimi (who scripted with his brother Ivan) uses it as a jumping-off point to subject his heroine to all sorts of torment, with tongue firmly in cheek when it’s not slobbering all over poor Christine. Her fiancé Clay (Justin Long) tries to be supportive but doesn’t quite believe and isn’t much help, so she seeks assistance from fortune teller Rham Jas (Dileep Rao), who might be able to assist her as long as she’s got the cash. Neither a helpless damsel in distress nor an exaggerated tough chick, Christine, as played very well by Lohman, is a sympathetic heroine and viewer surrogate, a vessel for anyone’s worries about worst-case scenarios after slighting the wrong stranger. (The fact that the movie’s instigating incident is well-timed to the current housing crisis seems more like a happy accident.)

Of course, it’s unlikely that much of what transpires in Drag Me to Hell could happen in the real world, but Raimi sets up a heightened tone and environment where each new, frightening development seems to proceed naturally from what has come before. And he has his finger right on the pulse of audience expectations, knowing that all he has to do is offer a glimpse of Christine’s adorable little kitten, or send her to her first dinner with Clay and his parents, to get them giggling in anticipation of what’s coming next. There are sneaky reversals of those expectations scattered throughout, though one of the most significant is fairly easy to spot in advance. Horror movies have been endlessly compared to rollercoasters, but this one is more like a funhouse, with nasty things popping out at regular intervals, some of which make you jump and catch your breath, some of which make you jump and then laugh at having jumped, and some of which just make you laugh.

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At no point, however, does Raimi have fun at the genre’s expense; he clearly respects its rules as much as he likes tweaking them. The result is a movie that can be enjoyed by both his die-hard fans and the date-night crowd, done up with a professionalism that doesn’t cross the line into overslickness. Reteaming with cinematographer Peter Deming for the first time since Evil Dead II, Raimi keeps his camera mobile without the shots calling attention to themselves, and composer Christopher Young, a frequent collaborator with the director and his Ghost House Pictures fright factory, delivers a properly eerie/bombastic score. Also logging their latest in a long line of Raimi assignments are the KNB EFX boys, whose prosthetic gags are first-rate (making up for some frankly cheesy digital FX); particularly effective is their uglification of Raver, who tears into her villainess role with relish. There’s no Bruce Campbell bit this time, but fans will enjoy the fact that Mrs. Ganush drives Raimi’s well-worn Oldsmobile, and sharp-eared ones will note a vocal cameo by the director’s brother Ted.

Watching Drag Me to Hell, it’s hard to believe that it has been over a decade and a half since Raimi last trod this territory in Army of Darkness. It possesses the spirit one expects from a precocious up-and-comer eagerly taking advantage of his first studio budget, not a seasoned filmmaker who (gasp!) turns 50 this year. May he stay forever young, and may he not take so long to make his next visit to horror territory.