Imagine you’re Sam Raimi. You struggle for years to be recognized as a true directing talent, delivering fright films as beloved as The Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2, and Army of Darkness while battling a studio system that thinks horror is all you have to offer. You broaden your career horizons with tongue in cheek comic book efforts like Darkman, as well as equally effective thrillers like A Simple Plan. And then, to top it all off, you turn the superhero movie into a multi-billion dollar genre by helming the Spider-man franchise (at three popcorn blockbusters - and counting). Yet like Woody Allen and his ‘earlier, funny’ films, the fans keep clamoring for more macabre. You could direct a dozen visionary dramas and still the geeks will complain about the lack of new dread on your resume.
No wonder the wildly appealing Drag Me to Hell feels like a friendly extended middle finger to all those who keep wishing for the filmmaker to return to his roots. Raimi hasn’t lost his touch with terror, nor has he been avoiding the cinematic type because of a lack of inspiration. The results here - captured brilliantly in a new Blu-ray transfer from Universal - show that, even in a stripped down PG-13 format, the man who made Bruce Campbell’s chin a household name is as feisty and fevered as ever. Working from an original idea (brother Ivan once again contributing the script) and featuring a classic creepshow premise, we get the kind of edge of your seat shivers that haven’t been readily available since the last time we saw the all powerful Necronomicon. Add in the latest technological tweaks, and Raimi is ready for the 21st century.
Our story centers on Christine Brown, a loan officer for a small town bank. She desperately wants a promotion, if only to prove to her boyfriend’s parents that she’s not some hick loser. Unfortunately, in order to get ahead, she’s required to make some cutthroat decisions. When an old woman comes in looking for yet another extension on her mortgage, Christine is faced with a quandary. If she denies the deal, she’ll definitely win favor with the boss. But doing so will also hurt the elderly lady, who doesn’t look too long for this world to begin with.
Naturally, needing the brownie points, Christine turns her down. Next thing she knows, she’s cursed, destined to be tormented by a demon for three days before finally being dragged down to Hell. Looking for help, she turns to her lover. When he appears ineffectual, she has no choice but to contact a psychic for advice. His opinion is not very helpful either. With time running out, Christine must find an answer, or be doomed to an eternity of agonizing torment and torture.
As much a directing tour-de-force as a showcase for some sensational up and coming actors, Drag Me to Hell is why many of us fell in love with fright in the first place. It’s a wonderfully wicked journey with a genial genre guide who clearly knows all the horror hot spots. Even in a teen friendly format, Raimi revels in making people squirm. There are sequences here that should have even the most cynical scary movie buff hiding their head in gleeful gross-out shame. In fact, the highly touted “Unrated” version of the film is more of an MPAA mandate than a true amplification of the grue. The minimal amounts of added blood and bile are almost indistinguishable from the original theatrical cut. But anytime you mess with the original edit and don’t show it to the ratings board, they demand it go out sans score.
It really doesn’t matter since it’s Raimi behind the lens, the man who married laughter to legitimate scares to create the first true horror comedies of the post-modern age. Here is a filmmaker in full control of his faculties, able to elicit gasps out of scenes as simple as a young woman wandering around an unfamiliar house. We get fly attacks, projectile nose bleeds, false teeth fu, and enough old lady sputum to make an entire nursing home staff nervous. There is also a marvelous moment toward the end where Raimi pulls out all the stops, Evil Dead style, to turn a séance into a marvelous bit of audio/visual overkill. What’s even more appealing is the director’s desire to stay firmly within the kind of fright films he loved and loved making in his youth. There is no desire to go torture porn or full bore bloody. Instead, he wants to craft a rollicking rollercoaster ride where the inevitable downtime helps prepare us for the continuing chaos to come.
Drag Me to Hell has an expert cast ready to lead us through this maelstrom of motion picture menace. Alison Loham makes a perfect victim - savvy without being too smart, innocent but with enough bad-girl baggage to guarantee she won’t go down without a fight. She is matched well by Justin Long who gives new meaning to the concept of the well-intentioned wimp paramour. Solid support comes from David Paymer as the unscrupulous boss willing to play his employees against each other for greater business bonuses, and Dileep Rao as that classic fright night character - the psychic with an ever-changing means of making things better (or in his case, worse). The real star here though is Lorna Paver, made-up to resemble a rotting human ogre, her broken teeth and cloudy eye a sure sign of impending evil. Thanks to the Blu-ray, the level of nauseating detail in her performance is accentuated for squeamish viewers to revel in.
It’s too bad then that Raimi was too busy with Spider-man 4 pre-production to sit down for an audio commentary (the film’s less than stellar box office might have aided in that lack of availability). He’s a great narrator through his own films and a true fan of the genre. We do get a few production diaries, but they’re not the same. Indeed, the lack of complementary bonus features on this digital presentation presents a problem. Fans who’ve longed for Raimi’s return won’t be happy with something they feel is basically barebones. Yet those new to the man’s way with macabre probably could care less. For them, it’s a wonderful high definition transfer of the movie and that’s all that’s important. Luckily, the Blu-ray of Drag Me to Hell succeeds in said category. It’s also a brilliant return to form from someone who never really left. Once again, Raimi will have a hard time living down his legacy. When the movie is as good as this one, it’s not hard to see why.