Sweet holy, barkin’, somersaultin’, lovable, eyeball-poppin’, road-racin’, gum-drop Sally.
Now this is a horror film.
Sam Raimi’s been several different directors in his 28-year career. Wild-eyed genre enthusiast (The Quick and the Dead), somber studier of tragic characters (the absolutely fantastic, minimalist A Simple Plan), and, of course, most famously, kinetic slinger of webs in the blockbuster Spider-Man trilogy.
But for those of us who grew up on the horror films of the ‘80s, Raimi will always be the maniacal puppeteer of The Evil Dead trilogy—the original, grim, low-budget horror-in-the-woods flick; the brilliant laugh-scream slapstick of its sequel/remake The Evil Dead II; and the less horror/more camp follow up, Armies of Darkness.
As you may have heard, that Sam is back.
Drag Me to Hell is something a whole generation of horror-film fans hasn’t seen much: pure, gleeful, slapped-silly gross-out fun. No brooding Japanese ghost stories with pale faced, stringy haired phantoms. (Though Raimi did his part to spread that trend as producer of the American Grudge.) No anatomically grotesque torture-porn sessions, a la the Saw series (and the much better Hostel films). No teenagers hacked up by frustrated handymen.
Instead, Raimi has gotten behind the wheel of his second favorite muscle car and put the pedal to the metal. (And yes, longtime Raimi fans, The Classic is here, in its biggest supporting role since Armies of Darkness.) As written by Raimi and his brother Ivan, Drag Me to Hell is the story of sweet, ambitious, good-hearted Christine Brown, played with wide-eyed, almost-dreamy guilelessness by the terrific Alison Lohman (Where the Truth Lies). A bank loan officer (boo! hiss!) out to impress her boss (David Paymer), Christine turns down an old gypsy woman’s request for a payment extension and in return gets herself a helluva lot of grief.
This plot stuff is pretty thin—it could be covered in about eight pages of an old EC Comics Tales From the Crypt issue. And that's the point: no messing around, no lallygagging. Christine’s character is sketched out quickly and effectively, aided by Lohman’s pitch-perfect performance: she's one of those go-getters we all know—or are—who try to say and do all the right things, support the right causes, and wrap up their ambition and fierce self-interest in oodles of happy smiles and rationalizing Oprah-babble. Until a demon curse from Hell comes along and runs all those rainbows and unicorns right through the wood chipper. Then Christine will do anything to get that promotion, and anything to keep from getting hauled off to the land of fire and brimstone. ("Here, kitty, kitty…")
Raimi is a fine weaver and cranker of suspense, but Drag Me to Hell is not really a terrifying film—most of the scares are of the violin-shriek, jump-shock sort. There’s none of that atmospheric dread or nightmare-inducing creepiness that’s going to follow you back home when you turn off the lights for bed.
Instead, this is a soda-spewing, popcorn-choking laugh riot—it’s meant to be a pure horror-ride hoot. And yet, I was the only person in my theater on opening night who was proudly roaring at every wildly inappropriate indignation inflicted on poor Christine. In an act of pure self-preservation, I’m going to say that’s a problem with the audience not realizing it's okay to laugh at this stuff and not an indictment of my taste, or lack thereof.
Lohman deserves a purple heart (and a course of antibiotics) for not only carrying the show, but doing so while under a non-stop assault of body fluids (her own and others’). She has an effortless ‘60s Hitchcockian glamor, giving off a Janet Leigh or Eva Marie Saint vibe—the good girl you can’t wait to see pushed to the breaking point. Justin Long is on hand as Christine’s unhelpful boyfriend; and TV character actor Lorna Raver gives us one top-notch, denture-dropping, banshee-shrieking old gypsy woman. Dileep Rao, Adriana Barraza, and Reggie Lee round things out as various spiritual advisers, mediums, and work rivals.
But the real star of the show is Raimi’s nutso eye for supernatural chaos. Mainstream audiences got a small taste of this in Raimi’s Spider-Man II, during Doc Ock’s ill-fated surgery scene. But us old-school Raimi fans will recognize all the familiar tricks—there’s not much here he wasn’t already throwing at us and Bruce Campbell 22 years ago in that Evil-Dead-infested cabin in the woods. (At one point, Long suggests they get away and relax at his parents’ cabin, and I was up on my seat shouting, “Cabin! Cabin! Cabin!”) Animated household objects? Yep. Ghostly giggling? Check. Crazed dolly zooms at dutch angles? Sure. Flying eyeballs? Oh hell yes.
When Christine flees her demonic pursuer and hides out in a tool shed, us Evil Dead II fans will be squealing with anticipation. There are just so many things that can go wrong with power tools these days. Instead, Raimi goes really old school—he’s always been more a disciple of Chuck Jones than John Carpenter. (The only thing missing is an ACME stencil on the side of the anvil, and even that might reveal itself on closer DVD inspection.)
Let me just give you a quick rundown of some of the things that go into, come out of, or otherwise violate someone’s facial orifices in Drag Me to Hell: blood, teeth, mucus, embalming fluid, a whole forearm, staples (our second round this year, thanks to The Wrestler), a ruler (I think… things were happening pretty quickly), various sorts of multi-colored goo, a babushka (in a scene reminiscent of Ash’s struggles with his severed hand in EDII), worms, flies, and yes… a certain beloved pet.
Impressively, all this is done under a PG-13 rating. The violence is pure cartoon and Stooge slapstick, the blood is minimal, and the few actual deaths happen off camera. But don’t worry, it’s made up for with over-the-top foley work on the soundtrack. Comic-book onomatopoeia rules the day as Raimi piles up the plops, gushes, splats, screeches, and rips.
Thanks to that “teenagers welcome” rating, a generation of budding young horror fans (or just date-nighters looking to clutch one another in the dark) are going to be exposed to a sort of rip-snorting, good-natured, big-howls horror they haven’t seen much of lately. The kind of thing some of us discovered in Poltergeist more than 25 years ago.
Sure, this is a throw-away lark for Sam Raimi. After a decade of skillfully making movies designed to sell toys and fast-food tie-ins, he’s showing off here; masterfully and enthusiastically dancing to a nasty little hurdy gurdy carny tune. Lurid, florid, sordid, and morbid, Drag Me to Hell is the most shameless, disposable fun I’ve had in a theater all year. When the end titles slammed down abruptly and mercilessly, I was begging for 30 more minutes of mayhem.
You know, there was another young, mad filmmaker who burst onto the ‘80s horror scene with hilarious, reckless, blood-gushing, zombie-tossing abandon. Who also has spent the past decade making a big, lucrative, mainstream fantasy trilogy.
Sam Raimi has returned to his demented roots and raised the pot with two eyeballs and a talking possessed goat. Peter Jackson, it’s your turn.