Any good movie should, in its opening scene, provide the audience with a key to understanding the experience that’s going to unfold. The style and tone should be set-up immediately, so that we can adjust our expectations accordingly. Ideally, the experience should be set-up from the very first shot (“Barry Lyndon” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” come to mind as particularly memorable ones). Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell” does one better- most of what you need to know about the film is contained within its title alone. It would be impossible for this title to be attached to anything other than a self-aware horror film. I am not a big horror-enthusiast, but the charming audacity of the title got me into the theater. The movie begins with someone being dragged to Hell. It pretends like it’s going to end less cataclysmically, but isn’t kidding anybody. It ends with someone being dragged to Hell.
Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is an attractive young woman hoping for a promotion at the bank where she works. One day, a creepy old Gypsy lady walks in asking for an extension on a loan. Christine has the authority to grant the extension, but in an effort to get the promotion, hardens her heart and denies it. The old lady begs on her knees, but our heroine calls security and has her thrown out. Not a smart move, of course. As she leaves that night, she gets violently (and rather disgustingly) attacked and cursed by the old woman. The curse consists of no profanity, but of the predicament of being hounded by a very evil spirit for three days, after which it drags you to Hell. (Don’t you just hate it when that happens?)
This is all standard and generic sounding horror stuff (though there is some witty reference made to the credit-crunch), followed by one horror set-piece after another. That’s where the self-awareness comes into play. The scenes are basically played straight. No overt winking at the camera. But I quickly became aware of the fact that a lot of the horror moments are set-up with extra beats. In fact, if you are paying attention, you’ll notice that just about every single scare is prefaced by a little hint, telling you its coming. The parts of the screen that are obscured, the rhythm of the cutting, the kind of music that is playing (or not playing), the absence of sound- they all hint at what’s to follow. It’s interesting how ingrained these beats are, where even someone who has very little experience with the genre (like myself) could pick up on a hint that precedes a scare by no more than a split-second. I was caught off-guard only once during the film. The rest of the time I was chuckling at how Raimi was making a genuine trashy horror film while simultaneously calling attention to, and deconstructing the genre.
My general reaction to the film is a wry chuckle. It is funny in a modest, knowing way. Not an especially rich film- the performances are all one appropriate note, held for the duration. Lohman is anxious and panicked, Justin Long as the boyfriend is skeptical but supportive, David Paymer’s bank manager is callus and opportunistic. The only performance I really enjoyed for its own sake was Dileep Rao’s. He plays a fortune-teller (who, in this genre, are never wrong) with a quiet and sincerely campy intensity that was on a different wave-length than the rest of the cast, and was a welcome change of pace. Peter Deming shoots the film nicely, and Christopher Young provides a nice gypsy-tinged score. But the star is clearly Sam Raimi. The film represents his return to the genre he made his name with in the 1980’s, when he made “Evil Dead” and “Evil Dead 2” (similarly concise titles). Although he did direct one great film in the 90’s (1998’s A Simple Plan), for most of this past decade he has been mired in the Spider-Man universe (the fourth installment of which he is currently working on). I for one enjoyed his trip back to this modest film universe, after that increasingly bloated and humorless franchise.
Bottom line is this: You either want to see a movie called “Drag me to Hell”, or you don’t. It’s like “Snakes on a Plane”- only this time, there’s a decent movie to complement the inspired title.