[29 October 2009]
I know I’m just asking for the fanboy geek squad to drag me off to hell for the following, but Sam Raimi’s attempted return to the horror/comedy genre that was his stock in trade for the early part of his career is neither particularly horrific nor all that funny. Though the film does contain some breezy moments of gory gonzo fun that hearken back to the loony heights of the Evil Dead franchise, they are more a hollow echo of what once was, rather than a triumphant return to form. If Drag Me to Hell makes one thing abundantly clear, it’s the simple truth that you really can’t go home – or back to that cabin in the woods – again.
At times, though, the film seems poised on the brink of escalating into something approximating Raimi’s past triumphs of horror/gore/camp. Skirting the edge of the low-budget, and embracing its B-movie pedigree while never being too self-conscious about it, Drag Me to Hell kicks off with a wonderfully nasty little prologue - a young boy is brought to the ramshackle old mansion of a spiritualist. The boy’s parents beg the woman to save their child, but despite her best efforts, the poor child is attacked by his demon tormentor, flung around like a doll, and then (indeed) dragged down into Hell through a volcanic rent in the earth. It’s about four minutes, end to end, and is equal parts terrifying, goofy, and exciting. Sadly, the rest of the film never capitalizes upon the outrageous maliciousness and horror of this scene (though try telling that to the poor kitten from later in the film).
Things seem to be going very right for winsome young Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) – she has a doting, supportive boyfriend (Justin Long, a poor man’s Keanu Reeves); she lives in a lovely little bungalow in LA; and she’s up for a big promotion at work – if only she can stave off a rapacious new colleague. With this hanging over her, she yields to a momentary twinge of ambition and lands herself in a whole heap of trouble.
A wretched, wheezing old crone shows up at Christine’s desk, begging mercy from the bank. Mrs. Ganush – of indeterminate Eastern European descent – bemoans her fate, and pleads with Christine to extend her credit yet again. Christine dithers, her heart playing against her head – and under the watchful eye of her boss and colleagues, she yields to the latter, refusing the old lady any further extensions. Bad move…
Mrs. Ganush quickly transforms from whimpering old bat into a howling monster, lunging at Christine with gnashing false teeth, and screaming bloody murder. And then later she attacks Christine again in an empty parking garage – a prolonged, jarring knock ‘em down drag ‘em out brawl that is magnificent in its brutality and cartoonishness. This scene is perhaps the closest Raimi gets to capturing the gonzo aesthetic that drove the Evil Dead films – one part creeping terror, one part gratuitous gore, one part Looney Toons, one part Three Stooges, all at full throttle and over the top.
After the fight winds down, Mrs. Ganush bouncing back from each pummeling by Christine, the old woman unleashes a gypsy curse, siccing a demon on our young heroine that will plague her for three days before finally tiring of all the playing around and… well, dragging her off to Hell.
A simple, standard set up, to be sure – nothing exceptionally clever, but all the better to be a spring board for the unhinged lunacy one expects to follow. (Much like the isolated cabin in the woods in Evil Dead, Drag Me to Hell’s “gypsy cure” trope is meta, but never gratingly so. Raimi has always been able to balance on the homage/parody line of horror/comedy perfectly, probably because he invented a good portion of it). Too bad it never fully arrives.
Things move in fits and starts, but never rev up as they should– there are moments that seem to be careening along to the sort of nutso set pieces of Evil Dead, only to come to a screeching halt. The film is hesitant, unsure, never quite knowing what direction to push things, or what it wants to push - our funny bone, our guts? It tries to split the difference, and comes up short on both ends.
When the invisible demon knocks out the power in Christine’s house, and starts banging things around, we expect some sort of crescendo involving inanimate objects coming alive, a cyclone erupting in the living room. Instead, things just stop, dead. Blood spurts out of every orifice in Christine’s face, coming out in a quick jet, when it should be huge sheets, a tidal wave – and just as suddenly the well runs dry and she’s running in tears out the door of the bank. And even the climactic séance – involving the spiritualist from the opening, the big musty old house, and a demonically possessed goat – seems tentative, never quite crazy enough after its set up.
Maybe I’m just expecting too much. Maybe I’ve seen it all before, and better. Maybe I’m missing the joke. Maybe I’m missing what Raimi is trying to do here. But I don’t think so – I am generally one to cheer maximalism in every form, especially in B-movies/genre films – I celebrate their abandonment of subtly and grace, revel in their nihilistic excesses. More, always more, and more of it. And Drag Me to Hell is simply not “more” enough.
Like I said, it does have its moments. The hollowing spirit of Mrs. Ganush puking a torrent of maggots into Christine’s mouth – yes please! Or ramming her arm up to the elbow down Christine’s throat? Sure! And my favorite moment of all was the very loony appearance and then deployment of a conveniently suspended anvil in a garage (because we all have occasion to have a strung up anvil in our garage, right?). But the total package is less than the sum of its parts.
In the end, I wish Drag Me to Hell had focused more on the “Hell” part of things, and less on the actual “dragging”, which it tended to do in between its sporadic bursts of gore and mayhem. I should never be looking at my watch, not for films like this. Even at a lean 90 minutes the film feels long, and maybe would have been better off pared down to an hour and used as a pilot for a revival of Tales from the Cryptor as an episode for Masters of Horror. Though not without its pleasures, and though its willfully and refreshingly out of step with recent horror fare, Drag Me to Hell is just too inconsistent and too lacking in confidence, and actual scares, to be what Raimi and his legions want it to be.
Drag Me to Hell’s DVD package is disappointingly bare bones. The only feature, unless you include the additional director’s cut/unrated version (which is the one I watched, and I didn’t see this in theaters, so I can’t really expand on the differences. I’m guessing a bit more gore for the unrated), is a 35 minute collection of production footage. A few of these bits are passably interesting, but mostly it’s fairly standard behind-the-scenes fare, and with minimal involvement from Sam Raimi, it all becomes fairly stock, like they could be talking about any old horror film. Plus, “host” Justin Long’s lame attempts at humor started to grate after…oh, about a minute or so. They should have had Alison Lohman (who is just relentlessly adorable) present instead.