Drag Me to Hell

In Sam Raimi’s revenge-of-the-gypsy horror flick Drag Me to Hell, Alison Lohman takes one grotesque liquid after another in the face. She also suffers what might be cinema’s most epic nosebleed, almost drowns in a muddy grave, and generally gets bashed around. A less dignified role for a young actress would be hard to imagine, but then if you want dignity you don’t look to Sam Raimi in his manic-diabolical B-movie mode. Raimi, the cult-favorite auteur behind the madly inventive and sensationally entertaining Evil Dead series, has been playing with the big boys lately (his last three films were the highly lucrative Spider-Man trilogy). Drag Me to Hell is his welcome-home to the low, disreputable fun of his drive-in-schlock roots. But there’s a note of mean-spiritedness I haven’t detected in his work before. The movie is manic and gross, all right, but not much fun unless you enjoy watching an attractive 29-year-old woman getting punished repulsively over and over. It should be a big hit with guys who collect bukkake porn.

Lohman, in the role of nice but eager-for-promotion loan officer Christine Brown, is being punished for refusing to grant an old gypsy woman (Lorna Raver) an extension on her mortgage. Raver, a TV veteran, is required to remove her dentures in lurid close-up and beg Christine on her knees for mercy — and that’s before she reappears as a grasping, murderous harridan. Drag Me to Hell certainly expresses disgust at ambitious young women and destitute old women; the gypsy is still doing revolting things even when she’s dead. Christine’s callousness has brought a curse upon her, and the old crone doesn’t just want to send her to hell outright — she wants Christine to suffer first.

All right, setting aside the film’s troublesome misogyny, Drag Me to Hell is clearly intended as a Saturday-night flick to make teenagers howl and squeal and gag. Most of it isn’t scary, though. “I recognize terror as the finest emotion,” Stephen King once wrote, “and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.” Raimi isn’t proud, either. The style is disappointingly earthbound coming from a man who once had to make his own cheap camera mounts to get the insane, looping shots he wanted — a good portion of Drag Me to Hell looks like television, and even the spooky stuff is largely a matter of bumps in the night and ooga-booga shadows. The horror is very tame.

The script, by Raimi and his brother Ivan, had been sitting around collecting dust for decades, and maybe there’s a reason for that — the story is blithely padded out to allow for maximum torment of the heroine, at the expense of logic. Christine tries all sorts of things to free herself of the curse, pumping money into a sympathetic spiritual counselor for advice that never works, and he waits till her time (and the movie’s time) is almost up before telling her something that actually might work. While she and we wait, there’s more gross-out stuff, and a seance that rather haplessly calls back to the floating Deadites of the Evil Dead films while missing those films’ cracked, spectral beauty (there’s nothing in this movie to equal the possessed woman’s macabre dance by moonlight in Evil Dead II).

Drag Me to Hell doesn’t feel like something Sam Raimi has been passionate to make for years and decided to cash in his Spider-Man clout to realize his vision. It feels like an “All right, all right, here’s a damn horror film” capitulation to old fans (many of whom will crow that “Sam’s still got it,” though the evidence here is sketchy) and a recruitment for new fans, who won’t have seen all the tricks here a thousand times before. The old Raimi used to leaven his splatstick with wit and an almost elegant sense of style (that dancing Deadite in Evil Dead II rolled her head down her arm like a top hat). But aside from a few Dutch angles and the prerequisite cameo of the ’73 Delta 88 Oldsmobile, this doesn’t feel like Raimi at all; it plays like one of those awful moneymakers his Ghost House shingle has been producing for the last few years, and it’s rather squalid and ugly and cynical. Maybe the horror genre has missed Raimi more than he’s missed it.

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