Combustible Celluloid
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With: Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver, Dileep Rao, David Paymer, Adriana Barraza, Chelcie Ross, Reggie Lee, Molly Cheek, Bojana Novakovic, Kevin Foster, Alexis Cruz, Ruth Livier, Shiloh Selassie, Flor de Maria Chahua
Written by: Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi
Directed by: Sam Raimi
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of horror violence, terror, disturbing images and language
Running Time: 99
Date: 03/14/2009

Drag Me to Hell (2009)

4 Stars (out of 4)

On the Button

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Of all horror directors, I think Sam Raimi best compares to James Whale. Both filmmakers view the genre with reverence, but also approach it with a kind of cheerful black humor; you'll never see them taking anything too seriously.

In Raimi's new horror film -- his first since his famed Evil Dead films -- there's a scene in which the heroine Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) searches through her shed for things to sell; she's in desperate need of money to pay a medium. From behind a curtain jumps a ghost, which attacks Christine and pins her up against a post.

Christine happens to be holding an ice skate in one hand; her eye follows a length of rope, which travels up through a pulley to the ceiling, then through another pulley and down, where it's tied to a dangling anvil! It's ludicrous, of course, that anyone would have a hanging anvil at the ready, but Raimi presents the device with such confidence and certainty that it works; he's laughing behind the camera, but the scene plays straight.

Drag Me to Hell takes on the old "gypsy curse" idea, but in a very solid screenplay (by Sam and his older brother Ivan Raimi). Christine works at a bank, where she struggles to find a place among the more aggressive men, such as her boss (David Paymer) and the other candidate for the job (Reggie Lee). She's vying for a new assistant manager position, but must show her business savvy to get the job. Hence, when nasty old Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), with her glass eye and craggy fingernails and teeth, applies for a loan, Christine turns her down.

A few creepy confrontations later, and the old bag has put a curse on Christine. Basically a demon will torment her for three days, and then come for her, taking her to burn in hell forever. She consults a fortune teller (Dileep Rao) and eventually a powerful medium (Oscar-nominee Adriana Barraza) who once faced the demon many years earlier. And the most understanding boyfriend in the world, Clay (Justin Long), helps when he can.

Basically, the curse can attack at any time, with any number of weapons at its disposal. Sometimes the ghost of the gypsy woman attacks, and sometimes the horned demon attacks, and sometimes other things happen, like an eyeball popping out of a piece of cake.

Raimi knows that we know the usual rhythms for these things, and he deliberately plays with them, holding a scary note for an extra long time, or waiting an extra beat before cutting loose. He's also a master of the gleeful gross-out scene, and he one-ups many of the creepy "old lady zombie" gags from Evil Dead II. (I was shocked to find myself squealing out loud at one point.) He goes to the most disturbing of places, establishing that the old lady's mere touch is repellent, and then going further, into Freudian territory and direct contact with eyes, mouths, teeth, and fingernails. But, again, Raimi is careful to make sure the gross-out stuff produces smiles and not vomit.

Overall, Drag Me to Hell has less out-and-out Three Stooges comedy than the Evil Dead films, and of course, there's no Bruce Campbell. (Though Ted Raimi makes a small, almost totally off-screen appearance.)

Raimi seems interested in keeping Christine real, rather than a cartoon character. In its way, the film is as interesting a feminist comment as many of the other classic horror pictures of the 1970s. She starts out unsure, subservient and self-doubting and through her travails eventually builds confidence and even command of her situation. She never quite snaps -- as Campbell does in the Evil Dead films -- but she goes to the brink.

Of course, there's more to this argument, but it requires me giving away the ending, which I'm not willing to do. Speaking of that, it's not hard to figure out the movie's little swicheroo, but Raimi is less concerned with surprising us with the twist than he his in rejoicing at having a twist in the first place. He's just excited to be here, folks. And his excitement is infectious.

Universal's DVD release comes with both the theatrical cut and the unrated director's cut. The latter runs a few seconds shorter, and apparently it comes mainly in the sequence with the cat. In the theatrical cut, the characer pauses to consider her actions, and in the director's cut, she charges right ahead. Aside from that, we get some "production diaries" (about 35 minutes) and some trailers.

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