Drag Me to Hell

 

After directing some of the biggest blockbusters in American film history (the “Spider-Man” franchise), Sam Raimi goes back to his origins in the low-budget, more independent arena of horror and comedy flicks, such as “Darkman” and “Army of Darkness,” which two decades ago put him on the map as a talented director to watch.  Revealing Raimi in top form as a genre maestro, end result is an extremely satisfying low-budget supernatural horror, which relies more heavily on characterization than on special effects. 

 

World-premiering in March at the 2009 SXSW Film Fest, “Drag Me to Hell” was chosen as an official selection for the Midnight screenings sidebar at the Cannes Film Festival.  Universal, which will release the movie theatrically May 30, should expect good box-office results.

 

A closer look at Raimi’s oeuvre as director and co-writer (usually with his brother Ivan) shows quite a few consistent themes and characters that go beyond the particular genre in which he’s working.  Most of his films are complex morality tales, which revolve around ordinary protagonists, thrown into rather bizarre situations that force them to become (in one way or another) reluctant heroes-warriors.

 

The Raimi brothers had actually written the first draft of the script that would become “Drag Me to Hell” about a decade ago, initially titling it “The Curse.”  The movie is based on a terrifically workable premise that had served Hitchcock well in at least a dozen thrillers: What would happen to an “average” person if he/she were “cursed” or thrown into extraordinary crisis circumstances.

That the protag of “Drag Me to Hell” happens to be a woman who is bank loan officer in Pasadena, California lends the movie unexpected timeliness and political relevancy, considering the dire economic conditions in which we live.

 

In a pre-credit sequence, set in 1969, a young boy steals a bracelet from a gypsy.  Cut to the present and to Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), who commits a mild trespass when she denies a loan extension to an elderly woman named Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver).  Christine not only turns her application down, she also humiliates Mrs. Ganush, whose long, dirty nails, heavy Eastern European accent and evil eye identify her as a gypsy. Ganush then attacks Christine in the office, and later at her home.

It’s quickly established that Christine is essentially a good person who means well, trying to make it in the big and harsh big city of Los Angeles.  A normal person, Christine, like everyone else, is trying to get ahead in her job, which calls for tough decisions.

 

Moreover, to get her boyfriend Clay, whom she loves, she makes a choice to sin, not realizing the ricochet effects of her deed, which sets in motion all kinds of dreadful consequences.

Most of the tale centers on how Christine deals with a situation, in which there’s disproportion between her crime and her punishment. Like “The Evil Dead” hero Ash Williams and “Spider-Man” alter ego Peter Parker, Christine is an average person thrust by consequences into a fantastical world that runs parallel to the one she knows.

 

Without any sign of warning, her normal life gives way to the bizarre.  First, her car is attacked by a stranger, then she’s suffering from a bloody nose, bad daydreams and even worse nightmares, leading to a surreal séance and a breathless scramble to escape her fate.

Influenced by mythic tales, the supernatural tormentor of Christine turns out to be a mystical beast, the demonic Lamia.  The Lamia has been imagined as various incarnations in many cultures—from a Greek goddess who turned murderess once Hera stole her children, to a cannibalistic ogre, succubus or centaur-like creature that is half man/half goat.  But despite variability, the various stories share a unifying trait: Lamia is a demon that, when awoken in anger, drags its victims down to hell screaming (thus the title).

The Raimis plot ‘Drag Me to Hell” so that Christine appears in almost every scene. The movie never wavers from telling the horrific tale from her subjective point of view, taking the viewers along on her journey and asking us how we would behave if placed in Christine’s ordeal.

 

The tale assumes the logic of a haunted house-style ride, with Christine serving as the vessel. The subplots play a secondary role to her growing panic and the desperation of her predicament.

The main characters are interesting and relatable to the point where we become emotionally invested in them.  To play counterpoint to the superstition and fear Christine experiences, the Raimis have made her boyfriend Clay a rational and cerebral professor, who attempts to dissuade her from believing that Mrs. Ganush has cursed her.  Among other things, “Drag Me to Hell” is a love story of sacrifice: Clay’s love for Christine outweighs what his mind tells him to believe and not to believe. .

 

More than just a horror or supernatural thriller, “Drag Me to Hell” offers an effective blend of genres that should appeal to younger audiences, while celebrating what Raimi’s fans have loved about his earlier work.  How many directors can make a handkerchief or a stapler or missing teeth and dentures threatening as deadly weapons?

Raimi proves that he’s perfectly capable of making a smaller-budget film after tackling three enormous blockbusters in a row.  He grabs the opportunity to return to the kind of more personal, wilder filmmaking, applying the tools of special, visual, makeup and mechanical effects to create a film that is as shocking as it is scary, as disturbing as it is funny.