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Hell to Pay: Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell
Dean Sobers , June 8th, 2009 07:38

Dean Sobers reviews Sam Raimi's triumphant return to Evil Dead form in this horror flick for the credit crunch era.

Sam Raimi was watching the section in Pan's Labyrinth where young Ofelia has just escaped the terrifying eyeless ogre via a portal in her floor and listens in dread — chewing on a stolen grape — as it stomps about beneath her. 'I could probably do a movie about a goat,' he thought.

That's not true, actually. His and Ivan Raimi's 'spook-a-blast' Drag Me To Hell allegedly started off as a story called 'The Curse' about a decade ago and permutated into an undeveloped screenplay for a horror short. Latterly, with a healthy injection of post-Spiderman funding, it got the feature treatment in the Ghost House production stable of predominantly awful horror sequels and remakes.

Drag Me To Hell, is, of course, excellent. There's a girl (Alison Lohman) who works in a bank. She denies a mortgage extension to a gypsy (Lorna Raver) with a false eye and rotting dentures. The gypsy doesn't take being shamed lightly; she curses the girl. 'Lamia!' she croaks, and what that means — or so 'Rham Jas — Seer' (Dileep Rao) tells us — is that you've got three days before this hoofed spirit comes along and drags you to hell. There's your credit crunch curse movie. 99 minutes of it, in a state of constant build — right up until the final plummet and crash into the credits.

In the promotional interviews (amidst actorly references to 'process', 'intelligent questions', 'denial', 'research' and the like) Raimi dropped the old gem: "I think of it [as] more than just a horror movie, more than just a supernatural thriller." What more, exactly? Well, lodged behind that throwaway claim is the slightly sad rationale that since because Drag Me To Hell is well-orchestrated (tensions and laughs hit home; it's visually inventive; you sort of hope the lead character will come out of it alright) it sets itself apart from its ilk — ie, this isn't The Cave, The Messengers, Thirteen Ghosts, Crazy Eights or what have you. But what it actually is, is a purpose-built supernatural horror thriller in the tradition of the first two Evil Dead movies: it explores what happens when ordinary everyday people suddenly find themselves accosted by an unrelenting flurry of skits involving rattling pots and pans, flying eyeballs and cackling carcasses. And it's saturated with hammy but undeniable tension and no shortage of laughs.

As expected, there are plenty of terrifying shots of That Yellow Car, and Raimi's brother Ted is credited as playing an offscreen 'Doctor'. Bruce 'The Chin' Campbell himself is nowhere to be seen (conjecture suggested that he was originally asked to do a small cameo but would only consider playing a part central to the movie; Campbell emphatically denies ever having been asked) but Lohman proves more than capable of putting in the spadework by herself. And it's definitely worth seeing Drag Me To Hell somewhere equipped with good speakers to experience the full, cranked-up impact of all those jump-moments.

Some mutterings have been made about Lorna Raver's (heroically played) evil old gypsy antagonist Mrs Ganush. The 'well, it's all just a bit of fun' defence tends to collapse under scrutiny; the best defence, I imagine, would be to say 'it was either this or Voodoo'. If the stereotypes associated with the gypsy curse irritate you, you'll know you've picked the wrong film from about two minutes in.

Critics have also denounced the 'tin-eared' dialogue, scantness of plot, and so on. They're right; but this is, nevertheless, one of the least wasteful, most confidently paced horror scripts to come along in a while. It certainly doesn't feel like a short stretched against its will to feature length.

So, more of this please, Mister Raimi; possibly some sequels involving guns. Actually, the prospect of slapstick-horror imitators gushing to the fore on the one hand, and bloated B-movie franchises spinning off into infinity on the other (cheers, Johnny Depp) is pretty hellish. Back to Spiderman it presumably is, then. Or possibly to Darkman to see if anyone can give IMAX Bale a run for his money.