“Everytime I pull myself out, they drag me back in!”
-Michael Corleone in THE GODFATHER PART III
What can you say about a horror film whose title sounds like a bad Italian Western? “Drag Me to Hell” – what does that mean, exactly? Does the lead character want to go to hell, or is director and co-writer Sam Raimi saying he feels as if he is being dragged back into a genre he left years ago? Whatever the case, the lameness of the title – its blunt descriptiveness, its lack of poetry or panache – pretty much sum up the film that will follow. Far from a glorious return to gory horror by the mastermind behind THE EVIL DEAD and, more particularly, the magnificent EVIL DEAD II, DRAG ME TO HELL is a modest exercise in nostalgia; it’s a bit like a reunion tour by an aging rock band running through a medley of their hits: it’s fun to see their routine again, but the magic is gone, and when the show is over, you realize you would be better off listening to the old albums instead of spending money on the new stuff.
[Warning: Spoilers ahead]
There is a pleasingly retro feel about DRAG ME TO HELL, which is clearly intended to be a fun and goofy form of gross-out horror. Sam Raimi clearly does not want to disturb you; he wants to provoke you into shouting at the screen, more in excitement than in fear, as each new explosion of slime, muck, and bile reverberates through the theatre. Constricted by a PG-13 rating, Raimi cannot deliver the gore (except for a nosebleed that briefly gushes like a geyser), so offers up goo instead. The yuck factor goes off the scale at times; you feel like you’re watching a 13-year-old brother’s attempt to disgust his sister by telling stories about squishing bugs. (The eight-year-olds in the audience I attended, loved the film.)
That is not nearly enough to sustain a whole movie, however, and DRAG ME TO HELL suffers on a conceptual level. Sam Raimi and co-writer Ivan Raimi just don’t know what to do with their story, except use it as an excuse to string together the set-pieces. This worked in EVIL DEAD II because of the hell-bent-for-leather approach, but this time out, the screenwriting duo seem to be laboring under the delusion that they are telling a story with characters.
They go out of their way to present bank loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) as an aspiring yuppie, someone who has dragged herself off the farm to seek success in the big city – even if it comes at the cost of her soul. Trying to prove to her boss that she is willing to make tough decisions, Christine refuses to grant a mortgage extension to an old gypsy, Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), who promptly puts a curse on her.
The rest of DRAG ME TO HELL deals with Christine’s attempts to avert the curse, but the script fails in one major, unforgivable way: Christine’s own greed – her quest to achieve a promotion even if it means evicting an old woman from her home – led directly to her problem; in a sense, she deserves what is happening to her, and the script never truly manages to get us on her side. If anything, we become more alienated from Christine as the story progresses.
Unsympathetic or morally dubious protagonists are nothing new; in fact, there are two reliable ways of pulling off this gambit:
Make the film a tragedy about someone whose moral flaws brings about his/her own destruction (think MACBETH)
Cast a likable actor in the role (think of Jimmy Stewart in VERTIGO)
DRAG ME TO HELL does neither. Lohman may be a competent actress, but she is not a dazzling screen presence, and she does not have that magic that will make us relate to her in spite of her character’s shortcomings. Likewise, the script lacks the nerve to turn her character into a completely ruthless bitch, one the audience will love to hate. Christine is presented as if we are supposed to sympathize with her, but the film assumes we will overlook her moral lapses simply because she is young and blond and mildly pretty.
This confusion about characterization is part and parcel of the whole conception of DRAG ME TO HELL, which seems cobbled together from a variety of sources. The most obvious is CURSE OF THE DEMON, the 1957 classic based on M. R. James’ story “Casting the Runes,” which also built its plot around a demonic curse that would strike within a specified number of days if the victim could not pass the curse onto someone else. (Both films end in a train station, not coincidentally.) What made James’ stories frightening was the random nature of the supernatural element, which terrorized innocent victims who had done nothing to deserve their fate.
The screenplay for DRAG ME TO HELL, on the other hand, comes closer to James’ predecessor, J. Sheridan LeFanu, whose ghost stories featured a stern form of morality, in which people who had sinned in only venial ways (sometimes more by omission than commission) were haunted to their deaths. There are also traces of E.C. comics, which took the LeFanu approach a step further, crafting tales that encouraged the reader to relish the demise of guilty anti-heroes. And the twist ending seems virtually lifted from Robert Bloch, who enjoyed thwarting his characters with the last-minute revelation of some unforeseen detail.
What this all adds up to is rather a big mess. DRAG ME TO HELL works on a scene-by-scene basis, with the script doing whatever necessary to justify those scenes while overlooking the fact that, in the long run, we just don’t care. Which would be fine if the film embraced a pure visual aesthetic, but Sam and Ivan want us to be involved in Christine’s plight and care what happens to her, when all we can really care about is when the next horror scene will arrive.
These are a mixed bag. As a director, Sam Raimi pulls some old tricks out of his hat (like the possessed human levitating with spastic arm and leg movements), but there is also a distressing use of computer-generated imagery that is slick and glossy but seldom frightening (Raimi redoes the flying eyeball gag from EVIL DEAD II, this time with CGI gore, and it simply lacks the visceral punch of the old-fashioned mechanical effect).
Occasionally, DRAG ME TO HELL achieve a shuddery kind of horror with its special effects – ironically, in the subtler moments. Early scenes of Christine fleeing from shadows on the walls are spooky in a manner far more old-fashioned that Raimi’s ’80s style over-the-top antics. The highlight has to be the remarkable moment when Christine sees that shadows of feet approaching a closed door: the shadows resolve into hooves, as of a devil, and then turn into hands – which stretch under the door and into the room!
DRAG ME TO HELL’s few genuinely scary moments are overwhelmed by the more crude effects, including an enjoyably protracted but ultimately overdone cat-fight between Christine and Ms. Ganush. Sometimes, the anything-goes approach descends into the outright ridiculous (as when a goat, possessed by the demon Lamia, begins to speak). The absurdity is clearly intentional (Raimi’s way of telling us this is all in good fun), but it’s another example of the film’s slip-shod construction, which shoe-horns in too many pieces that do not fit.
On occasion, some of those pieces are good. You have to laugh at the revelation that Mrs. Ganush’s rotten, broken teeth are actually dentures (presumably she bought them from a monster movie makeup store). And there is actually one well-written dramatic scene, wherein Christine suffers through an embarrassing family dinner with her boyfriend’s upper-class, snooty parents. When Christine reveals an embarrasing personal detail (her poor mother, back on the farm, is an alcoholic), the expected negative consequences are neatly reversed; instead of earning contempt, she is praised for her honesty. It is the one moment of genuine human feeling in a movie otherwise overwhelmed by superficial effects.
There is also just a vague whiff of white-boy racism, probably the result of adhering to stereotypes rather than any malicious intent. Our white, blond heroine is menaced by an ethnic minority with a foreign accent. DRAG ME TO HELL balances this with a couple of “good” ethnic types (East Indian and Hispanic), who aid Christine, but whether intentional or not, the implication is that dark-skinned people are part of a different world that traffics in exotic mysticism, unlike the white people, who are all businessmen or scientists.
Special praise, however, must go to Dileep Rao, who somehow makes his one-dimensional role as an Eastern mystic feel like a real human being. There character is just there to service the white heroine, but Rao suggests some kind of inner life that exists beyond his simple role in the plot. It’s also fun to see Justin Long (the Mac guy from those PC vs Apple commercials) as Christine’s boyfriend, but Lorna Raver makes a weak antagonist – there’s little chance that Mrs. Ganush will enter the pantheon of on-screen horror icons.
Ultimately, the biggest failing of DRAG ME TO HELL is that it is so lazy about confronting the moral issues involved. Defeating the curse is presented as a technical issue rather than one of salvation, and Christine’s moral failings are swept under the run; she regrets the trouble that resulted, but not really the actions that caused the trouble. In the low point, she resorts – way too early for it to be believable – to offering her pet kitten as a blood sacrifice to appease the Lamia demon; the sequence is presented almost as a joke (“Here, kitty, kitty!” she croons, knife in hand) when at the very least it should be a major dramatic moment on the character’s downward spiral. Later, just to underline the point, Christine takes part in a ritual that involves killing a goat. Finally, she has a chance to save herself at someone else’s expense, but she has last-minute second thoughts.
The clever approach would have been to suggest that, in attempting to save herself, Christine is actually damning herself to Hell, that these blood sacrifices and rituals are achieving the opposite of their avowed purpose, but DRAG ME TO HELL does not have the nerve to go there. These are simply failed attempts – failed because, for some technical reason, they did not work, not because Christine is willing to harm others to save herself. Her decision not to pass the curse on to a co-worker (a competitor for the big promotion) is meant to show a change of heart, but it is too little, too late – a weak writer’s device to win us over to Christine just before the script pulls out the big final whammy.
On the audio commentary for the US. DVD release of Takashi Shimizu’s JU-ON: THE GRUDGE, Sam Raimi (who produced the American remake) offers praise for what he learned and says it had been a long time since he had “gone to school” on horror films. DRAG ME TO HELL suggests he cut a few too many classes. As simple as the story and characterizations are in Shimizu’s J-Horror film, you always feel sorry for the innocent victims. In DRAG ME TO HELL, we applauded the heroine’s demise. For all I care, let the bitch roast in hell.
DRAG ME TO HELL (2009). Directed by Sam Raimi. Written by Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi. Produced by Rob Tapert, Grant Curtis. Executive Producers: Nathan Kahane, Joseph Drake. Cast: Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver, Jessica Lucas, David Paymer, Dileep Rao
Since originally posting, this review has been edited to fix typos and clarify language.