***½/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras C+
starring Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver, Dileep Rao
screenplay by Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi
directed by Sam Raimi
by Ian Pugh The Evil Dead was one of the primary altars at which I prayed as a young student of the cinematic arts--a vital entry in that education for how it left me shocked, nay, stupefied that such a work could actually exist, with its twitching limbs and tree-rapes and fountains of oatmeal ichor. How did they get away with that stuff? So it goes, I think, with Sam Raimi's best efforts, these four-colour horror comics put on film, blindsiding you with their towering insanity before you can understand just how deeply they'll worm into your psyche with their sadness and panic. Sounds incredibly petty to say, but I have to admit that when he found mainstream success and acceptance with the Spider-Man franchise, a little piece of that anarchic spirit died for me. Raimi himself was transparently nostalgic for it in Spider-Man 3, a decidedly misguided attempt to hark back to the themes of his original superhero masterpiece, Darkman.
Dusting off an old horror script Raimi wrote with brother Ivan, Drag Me to Hell is best described as an ebullient hybrid of his big-budget and no-budget sensibilities. His chintzy use of CGI finally locates its footing in recreations of the popped eyeballs and demonic animals of Evil Dead II; and when a possessed man floats five feet in the air to dance around like a marionette, it feels like a homecoming. (Not to mention that we get a better look at Raimi's beloved '73 Delta 88--thrown back into its role as a harbinger of doom--than we have in years.) That constant twinge of familiarity in meeting fanboy expectations may also be Drag Me to Hell's most glaring flaw, but why be so cynical as to begrudge Raimi the kind of manic set-pieces he's had to forgo over the past fifteen years? When an honest-to-God anvil is utilized in the only way you'd expect it to be utilized by a man raised on Looney Tunes and the Three Stooges, you realize that, goddamnit, the old boy's still got it.
Eager to make the "tough decisions" that will land her an assistant manager's position, bank loan officer Christine (Alison Lohman) unwisely denies an elderly gypsy witch (Lorna Raver) an extension on her mortgage payments, whereupon the gypsy curses her to suffer an eternity in Hell. But before that, Christine must undergo three days' worth of supernatural tortures involving nosebleeds that grow into geysers, wanton corpse abuse, and dead crones vomiting maggots and formaldehyde on the hapless faces of the living. Crowd-pleasing gross-outs of the highest order, no doubt, but Drag Me to Hell may be the first film that actively pinpoints Raimi's explosion of bodily fluids as an acute uneasiness with mortality. The movie establishes itself as something delightfully over-the-top very early on--I don't think there's ever been anything more hilarious/horrifying than the battle royale with the old lady, which culminates in the very real threat of being gummed to death. Add to that the fact that the now-svelte Christine once tipped the scales, never to shake the stigma, and realize how this body disgust ties into the deadly awareness that flesh, blood, and mind are each doomed to decomposition.
In that sense, lump Christine in with Darkman's Peyton Westlake and Army of Darkness' "Bad Ash," all three of them threatening to literally rot away as they gradually lose touch with their moral centres. As the clock counts down to her demise, Christine is sent into a selfish frenzy, literally sacrificing her poor kitty to the evil powers-that-be shortly before contemplating who she can realistically fuck over and send to Hell in her stead. Yeah, it's a pretty simplistic examination of the grey areas between good and evil, but I absolutely love how our heroine's snivelling rival at the bank (Reggie Lee) is set up as the secondary villain of the piece despite doe-eyed Christine's unspeakable deeds. As she recites several admissions of guilt about not granting that extension, you're almost tricked into forgetting every horrible thing she's done in the meantime. Drag Me to Hell manages to pull off many such improbable switcheroos--which suggests that Raimi doesn't "get away with" anything so much as he successfully convinces you that everything he has to offer is going to be worth it.
The film's most intriguing scene is an awkward dinner with Christine's psychologist beau/rational anchor Clay (Justin Long) and his rich, disapproving mother (Molly Cheek), who goads Christine into admitting her mother's alcoholism shortly before Christine terrifies them both by screaming at her invisible tormentors. It's entirely fascinating on its own terms as a self-contained bit of down-to-earth madness and another example of the class/financial warfare that grants the film an incidental timeliness. Still, I can't help but see a director's discomfort with his sudden identity as the five-hundred-pound gorilla of genre pictures and the responsibility attached to that label. He's the one dining with the bigwigs now, so is this film an attempt to exorcise those demons? (Don't forget that he's weathered accusations of selling out since Army of Darkness.) Perhaps Raimi, like Christopher Nolan and The Dark Knight before him, is trying to sell his special brand of perversity to the mainstream masses that have come to trust him with summer blockbusters over these past six years. It isn't his best film (for all its invocation of Evil Dead II, it's not quite that drum-tight), but Drag Me to Hell is Raimi's Rosetta Stone, laying bare his personal and professional fears in an aesthetic he calls home. Whatever it may be, it's a sterling example of the director's devil-may-care magic that never failed to pull me in hook, line, and sinker. Originally published: May 29, 2009.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
This underappreciated movie makes for a demo-quality Blu-ray Disc from Universal, who've rebounded spectacularly after hitching their train to HD-DVD with some of the best BDs in the business. Presented in 1080p at an aspect ratio of 2.40:1, Drag Me to Hell looks pristine on the format. I worried, initially, about the near-invisible grain structure, given that the picture was shot not only on film but also in Super35, but then I remembered that the now-common practice of doing a digital intermediate eliminates those steps which result in heightened grain. (I couldn't detect any evidence of DVNR besides.) While it leans towards sulphuric (hellish?) hues, the image is fairly naturalistic and as such there isn't a lot of "technique" patching over the transition to CGI, which has a silkier texture than Peter Deming's sharp-focused cinematography. That's not a criticism, by the way; if anything nags at me, it's that I wish shadows were a little better delineated, although I'm not sure they're supposed to be. The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track needs no such qualifications: the bass-rich mix--which often places you in the centre of a sonic carousel (dig those early Lamia appearances!)--translates remarkably well to the home theatre, where it boasts a pinprick clarity that brings even the smallest sounds, like a buzzing fly, into stark relief. There's also a D-BOX Motion Control code, and I imagine Drag Me to Hell would be great fun in one of those chairs.
Extras are limited to a 14-part "Video Diary" (35 mins. in toto, HD) hosted by actor Justin Long in full Justin Long mode. (I sort of hate myself those times he does make me laugh.) A better name for this B-roll-and-talking-heads making-of would be "Poor Alison," as it's mostly about the variety of Raimian torments to which actress Alison Lohman was subjected. I have to say, she's a better sport than I imagine myself being, especially when Evil Sam asks her to keep her mouth open during a take just as they're about to hose her face with maggots. In other segments, they spray fake blood up her nose with 80lbs. of pressure and hope that a tiny stopgap in her nostril doesn't go shooting into her brain, and cake her in mud she describes as "painful" due to an apparent allergic reaction. On the other hand, Lohman seems kinda stoned in her interview segments, so maybe that's the secret. Production and sound design likewise get their due in these vignettes. The disc seamlessly branches the Unrated Director's Cut and theatrical version of Drag Me to Hell, the former differing by something like six seconds and featuring negligible additions to the parking-garage fight, Christine's nosebleed, and the kitty kill; a Digital Copy of the film resides on a DVD inside the keepcase. Originally published: October 26, 2009.