Note: I have since reviewed the DVD of Drag Me to Hell, although, my opinion of the movie in theaters vs. seeing it again on DVD was, for once, exactly the same.
Drag Me to Hell is the kind of movie that would have brought a smile to the face of infamous showman William Castle, who would stick buzzers in seats and dangle plastic skeletons on wires to get an amused reaction from movie audiences. Critics often compare movies to rollercoaster rides, so Castle might have suggested someone hook co-writer/director Sam Raimi's return to the genre up to an actual rollercoaster, so the audience could get flung around like poor heroine Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) as she desperately tries to escape a curse placed on her by a shamed old woman (Lorna Raver). On one hand, it's too bad Castle isn't around to do it, but it isn't even necessary. The movie is a ride already.
After months of terrible slasher pictures, two factors stand out: Raimi's respect for his audience, and his desire to make being terrified fun again. He and his co-writer brother Ivan (the writing team that gave us Darkman, and, of course, Army of Darkness) know that fans go in expecting to jump out of their seats, and it's twice as entertaining if they're partially in on the joke (i.e. people yelling advice at the characters on-screen). When Christine looks out the window at a horrendous creaking sound, Raimi cuts closer on her face in rapid succession because he wants the viewer to get up on their toes and grab their dates in advance, and when the scare arrives, it's almost cathartic in its amusement. Raimi described the style as "spook-a-blast", which encapsulates his technique perfectly. If you're not laughing after every scream in Drag Me to Hell, then you're only getting half of the experience.
Anyone worried by the movie's trailer and big studio backing -- and worst of all, the dreaded PG-13 rating -- that Raimi isn't going to go all the way with this one can also put their fears to rest. The first thing you'll notice is the sound; Drag Me to Hell is one of the loudest movies I can remember seeing. Weird compliment, I know, but it's funny in and of itself; I laughed because it's like Raimi wants the viewer to experience Christine's physical torment through the abusive soundtrack (and abuse is Sam Raimi's middle name). Also, while I don't agree with the opinion that this is Evil Dead 4 with a different wrapper, it's hard not to feel like you've been transported back to 1992 when a possessed lackey, decked out in signature KNB makeup, dances comically in the air above a flaming table, or when any number of gross-out fluids spew on the movie's hapless characters. Raimi even slaps the 80's Universal logo on the movie, and an even older logo at the end of the credits. It's awesome.
Drag was originally meant to star Ellen Page of Juno fame, but her usual cynical demeanor would have derailed Raimi's intentions. Lohman plays Christine with more naïvete than Page could have mustered (or, perhaps, has ever mustered), but that cluelessness is an important plot point. Much like Bruce Campbell's Ash, Christine just doesn't understand how she's ultimately responsible for everything that happens to her, and her ditzy inability to come to terms with it actually drives the plot forward. You also wouldn't have been able to buy Page liking a dork like Christine's boyfriend Clay Dalton (Justin Long). Clay is a different type of naïve, believing that Christine's accursed affliction can be chalked up to post-traumatic stress disorder. So often in movies, the skeptic is meant to be relatable to the audience, representing the audience's disbelief, but Raimi plays Clay's dismissal like a joke we're in on...one with a darkly amusing punchline.
The movie breezes by at a cool 99 minutes. It only takes three days for the lamia to take you away, so Christine has to go with the first person willing to help her, which turns out to be Rham Jas (Dileep Rao), a supposed psychic whose potential con-man status is amusingly unresolved by both the script and Rao's quiet performance. He suggests a number of solutions, including an animal sacrifice, a séance (the film's most spectacular, armrest-gripping sequence), and trying to give the curse away, for the low, low price of at least $10,060 (he accepts American Express).
The film's only flaws are a bunch of noticeable CGI (although it's generally used where practical effects would be prohibitively complicated or impossible), and a predictable third-act twist, but everything in the movie is executed with enough enthusiasm to stay afloat through the rough patches. Some people won't like the jump-scare style of the movie, either, but I can't imagine a genre fan who hasn't seen or didn't like Evil Dead II seeing this, and the crowds who flocked to Prom Night probably aren't all that discerning.
It's the beginning of the summer movie season, and I don't know if people are looking to be frightened, but I hope so, because Drag Me to Hell delivers. I don't think I've seen a more successful horror movie in theaters, and it's great to get Raimi back, even if it's just for one picture. I criticized the trailer before, but it's right about one thing: this is a return to true horror, delivered with impish glee by one of the genre's modern maestros. As Christine is repeatedly besieged by a floating corpse as she tries to crawl out of a flooding graveyard plot, I couldn't help but wonder if Sam himself was under the water, insistently jabbing the prop at his lead actress, trying to get a rise out of her, and by extension, the audience. It's Raimi's version of the seat buzzer, and I imagine William Castle is cackling with delight.
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