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Drag Me to Hell (2009)
Horror, as a genre, often seems something that directors leave behind them as they gain in fame. David Cronenberg, Peter Jackson, it seems like there's some sort of invisible graduation ceremony and they declare they're doing other movies now. So when Sam Raimi returns to the genre after having helmed three Spider-man movies, all eyes are on him. We watch, hoping that he is not simply returning to his roots for a paycheck, but instead brings that manic magic that enraptured us in Evil Dead II or Army of Darkness.
We had nothing to fear. Raimi delivers the goods, and delivers them well.
Christine (Alison Lohman), a loan officer at a small bank, attempting to impress her boss, denies an elderly woman a third extention on her mortgage. The woman, distraught at being both evicted from her home and shamed in public, curses Christine to be tormented and then dragged to hell by the spirit Lamia. Christine then desperately tries to escape the curse while the clock on her doom slowly ticks down.
It's almost a set-up for a Twilight Zone episode, very simple and bereft of metaphor. The power of Drag Me to Hell isn't in deep social commentary or reflections upon the human psyche. Sam Raimi is just out to scare the ever-loving crap out of you, even if it means just throwing cheap scare after cheap scare at the screen. Flashes of scary faces, shadows jumping out -- it really is just a parade of variations on dressing up in a sheet and shouting 'Boo'. Even when you're smart enough to know the game that Raimi is playing, you're not impervious to the scares. I found myself literally crying out in surprise in the movie theater, even though I had tried to steel myself for the inevitable.
Raimi doesn't soley rely on those cheap scares, though. There's a legitimate build up of tension in all of these moments. Raimi knows how to manipulate an audience, and he uses an arsenal he's built up for many years. Dutch angles come into play, but never overwhelmingly so. Sound is especially used to great effect; the grating of Christine's metal lawn gate being the most obvious example. One of the best examples of Raimi's mastery is the scene where Christine is cursed by the old crone. It starts with the flash of dread at seeing the crone's car, but then Raimi distracts us. A handkerchief flutters towards Christine, and slams against the window of her car with a near thunderclap of sound. We think it was all just a fake-out, then the camera follows the handkerchief around the car and towards the back window and then the crone is just there in the backseat, paying off the fake-out with a real scare. It's just good filmmaking, period.
Fans of The Evil Dead get their payoff, too. Raimi's roots really come out to play in the scene where Lamia possesses a medium's assistant. The possessed man floats above a table, his arms raised and his legs doing that little jig that any fan will recognize as very similar to that of the possessed Deadites from the director's previous work. It's nothing that draws you out of the film; Raimi manages to pay homage to himself without seeming indulgent. Indeed, a lot of the Evil Dead spirit is on display throughout the film (true Evil Dead fans, keep your ears peeled for Ted Raimi's cameo). Half of the scares are followed by a gag, whether gross, morbid, or slapstick, to give sharp relief of tension in the form of laughter. Whether this is the fate of Christine's kitten, or the Looney Tunes-esque antics of Christine's vision with the anvil, they help both give the audience a chance to feel more relieved as well as set them up for more scares.
Beyond the work that Raimi puts into the film, a lot of the credit for its success falls to Alison Lohman for her strong performance as Christine. Christine is a very fully realized character, a woman struggling with herself, fighting both her Southern accent and her former flabbiness. From the get-go, we see that she's facing extreme expectations from all corners: her boyfriend's parents, her boss, and, most importantly, herself. It's these expectations that cause her to make the utterly selfish mistake which drives the plot of the film. Throughout all this, Alison Lohman has just the amount of desperation and inner strength to pull it off. When Christine is scared, we see her vulnerability, but when she grows to fight her plight, Lohman sells that development. The highlight of both Lohman's performance and the movie itself comes towards the end, during the moonlit and muddy gravedigging scene, where we see just how these events have transformed her. Christine is a true Raimi hero, a mix of strength and desperation, teetering on the edge of madness. It's a beautiful sight to see.
Drag Me to Hell isn't without flaws. There are a lot of gross-out moments. I can't stress that enough. While nothing nearing the overused gore (in fact, the film has very little blood, barring one wonderful and biology-defying nosebleed) of most modern horror films, it does feel like Raimi will settle for making you nauseous instead of scaring you at some points in the movie. Additionally, if you're really not a fan of cheap scares, you'll find a lot of the early parts of the film tedious.
In the end, the weaknesses are far outshadowed by the fact that Drag Me to Hell does its job, and does it well. I applauded, and applauded hard when the end credits began. Sam Raimi did not abandon his roots, and when he came back to them they were just as strong as they ever were. Even with a complete lack of Bruce Campbell, Raimi stepped back to the plate and hit one out of the park. I give Drag Me to Hell a very, very strong recommendation.