For someone who grew up devouring cinematic carnivals like Evil Dead II, Darkman, Army of Darkness, and The Quick and the Dead, there was certainly a satisfaction in watching Hollywood embrace Sam Raimi, the ringmaster of such zany pulp. Though some of his ensuing more traditional fare like For Love of the Game and The Gift certainly have their shortcomings, the restraint on display was nevertheless interesting, and it was thrilling to see him knock it out of the park with A Simple Plan and Spider-Man 2. Still, it was hard not to wistfully recall that often dizzying camera and offbeat genre-blending that originally gained the filmmaker such a sizable cult following. Sure, there were tastes of that manic energy along the way — the hospital scene in Spider-Man 2 immediately comes to mind — but it had been over a decade since audiences had been treated to a full serving of the unique flavor that the director brought to his past tours de force. Finally, with 2009’s Drag Me to Hell, they got it again.
About a junior bank loan officer named Christine who finds herself cursed to eternal damnation after rejecting an extension for an old, decrepit gypsy woman — complete with yellow fingernails, slippery dentures, and a milky-white blind eye — Drag Me to Hell essentially deals with a good person facing the consequences of a bad decision (much like the aforementioned A Simple Plan, but with more sloppy goop and an ancient, soul-swallowing demon). What makes this simple setup so satisfying is that it forgoes intricate plotting for a series of character trials — escalating tortures that allow Raimi to rip-roaringly cut loose on his heroine much in the same way that he once put Bruce Campbell’s Ash through the bloody ringer (only this time, mostly without the blood). Sure, these set pieces contain enough story to get the characters from point A to B, but they’re mainly about the punishment.
The film makes this apparent right from the start, when Raimi has the guts to mercilessly condemn a little boy who stole a necklace from a gypsy wagon. The fearful and beset lad is a remorseful and ultimately sympathetic figure, but the stark morality of Drag Me to Hell doesn’t care; when shadowy hands come to pull him down into the fiery underworld — in the opening scene nonetheless — the moment can be shocking. (Despite the lack of any gore, the heartlessness was so jarring for two of my friends who were unfamiliar with Raimi’s work, that they turned to me in the theater and asked out loud, “What the hell is this movie?!”)
But now that he has shown the audience that there will be no mercy — that anyone is fair game — Raimi is in control, and can begin manipulating them at every turn. One way he accomplishes this is by utilizing moral grey areas for many characters. Christine seems pure and innocent, but she is vainly ashamed of her rural origins (as a Midwesterner, I could only shake my head in disappointment), and denies a fellow human aid in order to further her own career ambitions; now Raimi can get away with dumping embalming fluid all over her face without it seeming too cruel. Mrs. Ganush, meanwhile, is downtrodden and about to lose her house, but she also is vindictive enough to condemn someone to hell for not helping her; this dulls the sense of unfairness when a much younger, fitter woman whose skin isn’t sagging whacks her in the head with a stapler. Stu Rubin is an asshole trying to take credit for Christine’s success, but does that mean he deserves to die? Maybe not, but he can at least be subjected to humiliating groveling.
Sure, Drag Me to Hell will have most will feeling sorry for Christine when she spurts a geyser of blood from her nose (one of the few times that the red substance is seen in this PG-13 film), or when she is tossed into every piece of bedroom furniture by a shadow beast that creeps in underneath the door. Audiences will worry when buckets of mud threaten to drown her in a rain-filled grave, or when an evil talking goat escapes the machete and proceeds to spew damning obscenities; she’s the ‘hero,’ after all. Yet Raimi continually tests that notion, pushing Christine to extremes in order to see how she (and we) reacts under pressure. A parking lot battle with the sloppy-gummed gypsy shows her gumption, the willingness to do whatever it takes to survive, but that admirable trait might make some viewers squirm when it comes to the sacrifice of an adorable kitty-cat.
Simultaneously making audiences laugh and cringe is one of Sam Raimi’s specialties, and Drag Me to Hell is a stellar example of how he manages to juggle straight horror with his (admittedly tamer) version of ‘splatstick.’ Much of the credit goes to his (and brother Ivan’s) scripts, which often require sincere recitation of cornball dialogue in ridiculous situations (almost like with a spoof, but without the punchlines), but the rest is all style. His trademark snap zooms are accompanied by jerky pans and gleeful push-ins that turn the lens into a demonic force itself, harassing the characters while delighting in both their misery and feeble attempts at fighting back. Raimi also delights in showing the physical process, whether its Ash strapping a chainsaw to his arm or Christine eyeing a length of rope in her shed — from the spot where it’s tied to a post, to the point where it wraps around a pulley, to the space where it attaches to an anvil over Mrs. Ganush’s head.
The film wallows in these techniques, as well as many others that are familiar to Raimi’s fans; menacing trees creaking, blasts of wind that come out of nowhere, a frantic struggle with an inanimate object, various liquid substances going into the hero’s mouth, a possessed man performing a mocking jig while floating above a seance table — all classic stuff. What made it so special this time was that absence had made the heart grow fonder; who knew when we might get something like this again? Years have since gone by without anything quite like this film, so these moments are to be treasured. In so many ways, Drag Me to Hell brought the excitement of a circus that hadn’t come to town in a while, serving as a reminder that there was still a ruthlessly entertaining edge to the director of Army of Darkness and Darkman.
Hopefully, that Sam Raimi will visit theaters again very soon.