Drag Me To Hell
June 11, 2009
It feels like it’s been so long since I’ve had a truly fun time at the cinema during the summer season that I had forgotten what the loud, brash escapism of the season is really for. I’ve liked plenty of the big, goofy blockbusters that get churned out, though admittedly I’ve loathed more and more as the years go by. Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell isn’t a big-budget event like his Spider-man films that dominated their respective years. This is a summer picture down solely to the release date, and yet it captures perfectly the essence of what the other should be about: fun. Perhaps the films I’ve been seeing have been so poor that my expectations have dropped lower than I thought, but this film felt to me like one of the best popcorn flicks of the last several summers. The fact that the budget was comparatively miniscule serves to make an even larger mockery of the bloated behemoths that compete for that hallowed place at the top of the year-end box office chart. This is proper filmmaking, and it is a truly invigorating sight to behold.
Christine (Alison Lohman) is a loan officer at a local bank, aspiring for the empty assistant manager’s position. Her boss (David Paymer, in the David Paymer role) is worried that her sweet nature will prevent her from making the hard decisions that go with the promotion, and he compels her in the most passive-aggressive way possible to toughen up or the job will go to the comically brown-nosing Stu (Reggie Lee). A prologue has already informed us about a curse that can be placed by certain gypsies that will lead to a demon fulfilling the title of the film in the most literal way possible, so when an aging gypsy woman comes in asking for a loan extension, you can guess how it turns out (Yeah, it’s a little like Thinner, but thankfully that isn’t really an issue). Three days of horrible visions and desperate consultations with a fortuneteller ensue, all while convincing her loving boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) that she’s both serious about what’s happening and not totally insane. All this is a race to lift the curse before the demon comes to collect his due.
It’s a ridiculous story, in the best way possible (a lot of this film is ridiculous in the best way possible, actually), and told in a brilliantly electric fashion. It is, first and foremost, a horror film, and it is one of the most truly effective ones in recent years at that. Aside from the wonderfully disturbing Wolf Creek, which succeeded where most fail by truly emphasizing the terror of hopelessness, or the psychological trauma running through Neil Marshall’s The Descent, the genre has been found wanting for some years now. The knowing, ironic re-launch of the slasher film through Scream is well 13 years gone, and I’m still not sure if that was a good thing in the first place. The J-horror remake trend has died out; thankfully sparing us any more of that tedium, and the ‘classic’ remakes are truly skimming the bottom of the barrel at this point. I also get the feeling that the torture-porn craze has finally subsided for a while. Okay, so the competition for Drag Me to Hell hasn’t added up to much, but that’s because this film understands the fun of being scared more so than any other in recent years. Most tend to go for gross-out gore or just sheer grim spectacle, but wildly over-the-top fun can be just as scary when done properly. Raimi perfected this balancing act with Evil Dead 2, the cult following of which has caused me to criminally ignore it for quite some time. Bruce Campbell’s performance is fantastic, and his quips are great, but we shouldn’t forget how imaginatively directed it really was. That kind of old school vigour is back in spades here, from the cheap gross-out gags to the goofy sped-up shots, Raimi crams it all in, and he manages to do so without being kitschy to the point of annoying (unlike Planet Terror, et al). The film opens with the Universal logo from the early 1980’s, and that turns out to be a statement of intent rather than a trip down nostalgia lane. That the cheesiness can be funny is enjoyable; that it can work to shift the mood to something genuinely scary in this day and age is refreshing and something of a miracle. And I don’t mean to gloss over the comedy, because this is also a very funny film (look no further than the dinner scene for one of the best comic set pieces of the year so far).
None of it would work if Sam Raimi weren’t one of the most talented artists of form working today. Aside from working with the genre before, he’s also responsible for the moving character drama wrapped in the guise of one of the tensest thrillers of the 90′s, A Simple Plan, as well as the arguable high-point of the noughties blockbusters, Spider-man 2, with its absolutely flawless structure. He knows how to toy with the audience when necessary, hitting all the shock-and-jump beats perfectly, while also keenly aware of when to move the narrative briskly forward. He can handle the timing of the comedy and the spectacle of the horror, oftentimes within the same scene. We might be able to call the ending a mile away, but that doesn’t detract from the journey to get there one bit. A few words must also be written on the sound. The score by Christopher Young is fantastically fun, both knowingly raucous and eerie at the same time, and the sound design of the entire film is superb. This really must be heard in the cinema, but be warned, it is loud.
I could really go on about the thrill of the Hitchcockian shot compositions that start the film, and move on from there, but it doesn’t matter, and you don’t have to be a nerd to enjoy the experience. Everybody should make their way to see this in the cinema, and relish the increasingly rare opportunity to have fun. Looking at what’s been released so far this summer, and the schedule coming up, it might be your only chance for a while.