Before he came to preside over a billion-dollar franchise, Sam Raimi cut his teeth making ultra-low-budget horror movies, gaining a huge cult following for the trilogy that defined his early career (The Evil Dead, Evil Dead II, and Army of Darkness). Now taking a respite from the Spider-Man trilogy that has defined his career as of late, he’s returned to his roots to revisit his classic style of scary-yet-funny horror with Drag Me to Hell.
Raimi learned early on—working with a virtually nonexistent budget—how to create suspense and repeatedly startle his audience without ever showing them an actual embodiment of the evil forces that torment his protagonists, and he’s returned to that style here, mixing his low-budget techniques with significantly higher production quality, with just as satisfying results. Here we have Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), a lovely and innocent farm girl who’s trying to make it in the big city. When she attempts to impress her boss at the bank where she works (David Paymer) by denying a creepy old woman (Lorna Raver) an extension on her mortgage, Christine becomes the subject of a curse that involves three days of torment before reaching a fiery conclusion, giving her a hard deadline on finding a way out of it. The demon that plagues Christine does so from the shadows, blowing through the leaves and tossing her around without ever showing its face (or whatever it is demons have in lieu of a face). Raimi finds several creative ways to keep this suspenseful and frightening, many of which are nostalgically reminiscent of the Evil Dead films; a lot of the early techniques described in Bruce Campbell‘s hilariously telling autobiography If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor are revisited here in slightly more sophisticated form (e.g., the “shaky cam”).
Christine and her all-too-perfect boyfriend (Justin Long) patronize a seer (Dileep Rao), who of course just happens to be familiar with her particular type of curse and by coincidence has books on his shelf that describe how it works, giving him a good opportunity to explain it to her and the audience at the same time. It’s always important for a horror movie to make sure its audience is aware of the rules under which it will operate, and this is an effective and concise manner of doing so. Rao plays the role of the seer almost tongue-in-cheek, all but winking at the camera as he suggests various solutions to Christine’s dilemma. This is an extension of the tone of the film as a whole, which never takes itself too seriously, always quick to temper the heart palpitations it’s inspiring with a moment or two of levity.
Poor Christine is subjected to all manner of terror and humiliation, and Lohman is always in possession of our sympathies. Her pretty face is hit, clawed, vomited upon, drenched in all manner of bodily fluids, sprays blood of its own, is covered by bugs, and gets vomited upon some more. Sometimes the effects of these assaults seem real, and she ends up with her clothing and hair stained or cuts and scratches on her face. Other times they seem to be hallucinations the demon is capable of inflicting upon her, disappearing as quickly as they appeared, with everyone around her (particularly the mostly-oblivious boyfriend) unaware of what she’s just experienced.
The seer also just so happens to have a colleague (Adriana Barraza) who has experience with the particular demon in question, providing more opportunity to explain how things work before showing us in dramatic fashion. There’s a great, pivotal seance scene that goes through all of the film’s modes of excitement, from startle-scary to funny-scary to scary-scary (and then back to funny-scary again).
Drag Me to Hell isn’t a movie for every occasion or mood, but it’s one that fits a certain occasion and mood as well as any of this type of movie I’ve seen. This particular blend of horror and comedy just may have been invented by the Raimis—writer-director Sam and his brother and co-writer Ivan—in the first place, and they’ve clearly perfected it. The biggest disappointment might just be that Bruce Campbell isn’t in it.