Published at: May 29, 2009, 1:02 a.m. CST by mrbeaks
Depending on your spoiler threshold, you may want to read this after you've seen the movie.
The decisive moment in DRAG ME TO HELL, the one that knocks it right up into the instant classic stratosphere, finds cursed bank loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) doing battle with the possessed corpse of her tormentor, Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), in a tool shed. Though there's a perfectly good narrative reason for Christine to go rifling through this shed, the attack can't help but feel inconsequential because our "hero" is still a day or so away from being consigned to hell for all eternity. She's not going to die. Not today. All the "Lamia" (the name of the vengeful spirit inhabiting the dead gypsy woman) can do at this point is rough Christine up. So what's the purpose of the scene? Well, basically, it's to let Sam Raimi stage a live-action Loony Tunes gag in which Christine frees herself from the bony grip of Mrs. Ganush by dropping an anvil on the unstoppable hag's head. As for why Christine has an anvil suspended fifteen-feet off the ground by a rope in her tool shed, well... don't you?
Based on a stripped-down, mayhem-packed screenplay by Raimi and his brother Ivan, DRAG ME TO HELL is a back-to-basics "spook-a-blast" for a director who appeared to be lost for good to the studio system after three SPIDER-MAN movies and, prior to that, a trio of toned-down dramas that bore scarce stylistic resemblance to the hyper-inventive gore classics on which he made his name. This isn't the first time an artist has tried to recapture the wildness of his/her youth after attaining mainstream respectability, but it is one of the only times in the history of any medium that the result has been not only watchable, but every bit as good as the classics that came before it. In fact, DRAG ME TO HELL is so good, it leaves you wondering whether Raimi spent the last sixteen years making himself commercially bulletproof so that he could make reasonably-budgeted "spook-a-blasts" for the rest of his career. If so, we win. Big time.
DRAG ME TO HELL is the kind of crazy that, in the hands of a less-established filmmaker, would be compromised to crap by studio notes before it got out of development. This is due to a variety of ghoulish plot twists that I will not list here, so let's just leave it at this: Lohman's Christine is the perfect Raimi protagonist in that she engenders in the viewer both a rooting interest and a perverse desire to see her suffer. Though she doesn't invite the trouble that leaves her fighting off a wicked gypsy curse, she behaves so selfishly once she's marked for eternal damnation that you can't help but feel she has it coming. As many of my fellow critics have pointed out, if you cast Bruce Campbell in this role, you'd essentially have EVIL DEAD 4.
And while I'd love to see that as much as the rest of you, I think I prefer what Raimi has done here. Whereas all Campbell has to do is open his mouth to get you giddy at the thought of his extreme misfortune, Lohman possesses a wholesome, utterly innocent demeanor; even after she commits an astonishingly cruel act in a futile attempt to drive the Lamia away, you still feel a bit guilty cheering for her ultimate punishment. And this internal conflict spices up what would've otherwise been a bash-Bruce fest.
Another reason it's difficult to turn completely against Christine is that Mrs. Ganush comes off as a massively unsympathetic "victim". In their fateful first encounter, where Christine denies her a third extension on her mortgage, Mrs. Ganush is portrayed as an pleadingly unpleasant bitch. It's hard to see how Christine has "shamed" her when the one-eyed gypsy was just plopping her dentures on the young woman's desk and - the horror! - emptying her complimentary candy bowl. Then comes the brutal parking garage attack, which finds the crazy old harpy fighting dirty - and, in a deliciously repugnant turn of events, gummy - while Christine struggles to defend herself with any odd instrument at her disposal (including a ruler). At this point, when it comes to viciousness, Mrs. Ganush has it all over Christine.
But after enduring a day of indignities (including an awesomely disastrous visit to Mrs. Ganush's funeral that leaves her with a mouthful of embalming fluid), Christine is ready to do almost anything to get the Lamia off her back. And while you can excuse her desperation (the Lamia doesn't haunt so much as pummel), Christine's willingness to palm her burden off on others makes it rather easy to enjoy her plight (incredibly, especially for a PG-13 movie, embalming fluid isn't the worst thing that ends up in her mouth).
The minute Christine compromises morally, she's done for - even though other characters (like her coworker Stu and her boyfriend's snobbish mother) get away with far worse. No matter. In Raimi's universe, either you stick to your principals through thick and thin or you deserve to get your ass handed to you by the Lamia - which means DRAG ME TO HELL plays like the B movie Michael Haneke will never allow himself to make. It's also the second Raimi film to have a none-too-subtle Christian subtext (see the dispatching of Venom in SPIDER-MAN 3), but, thankfully, Raimi's more showman than scold.
And make no mistake: this is a master class in horror filmmaking. Though I still think EVIL DEAD 2 remains Raimi's greatest contribution to the genre, DRAG ME TO HELL is easily his most viscerally terrifying movie to date. Does he mostly resort to jump scares to keep the audience off balance? Yes, but consider how he deploys them. For instance, there's a great scene early on where Christine is awaiting the initial arrival of the Lamia. It's evening, she's just been left at home alone by her boyfriend (Justin Long), the wind's starting to pick up, and she thinks she hears something bumping about outside her front door. As she tentatively peers out the window, the sound drops out and Raimi, eager to draw out the suspense, cuts in on Christine three or four times until we're right up in her grill. It's overkill, and it's designed to get a laugh. Then he cuts to her POV looking out the window, where we see dead leaves - and, by the way, this is a remarkably autumnal Los Angeles Raimi has imagined - gusting up her front walk. "Okay," you're saying to yourself, "This is where he springs the scare." But no. Nothing happens. So you relax, take a deep bre-- BAM! Lamia time. The entire audience shrieks. It's a killer shock delivered by a director who loves horror movies as much as we do, only he knows precisely what we're expecting and when we're expecting it.
DRAG ME TO HELL is that one-of-a-kind cinematic triumph that satisfies genre connoisseurs even as it's playing to the cheap seats. In its ability to scare and amuse, it belongs in a class with FRIGHT NIGHT, POLTERGEIST and TREMORS (just to name a few off the top of my head). Sam Raimi is back, folks. It's a great time to be a geek.