Drag Me to Hell (United States, 2009)

May 27, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Drag Me to Hell Poster

Oh no, not another PG-13 horror film! "But wait," you say. "It's by Sam Raimi." Perhaps, then, it shouldn't be routinely dismissed as just another tale of demons and ghosts that has been emasculated with the goal of appealing to pimple-faced teenagers who haven't figured out how to sneak into legitimate R-rated features. Raimi, despite having become sidetracked by a certain web-slinging superhero in recent years, has legitimate horror credentials. Not only is his Evil Dead trilogy considered a horror milestone, but he's the only director to have gotten Katie Holmes to doff her top. That alone has to count for something although, had The Gift been rated PG-13, Katie's assets would have remained concealed. So has Raimi achieved the Holy Grail? Has he made a horror film that chills and thrills yet is mild enough to allow admittance to comers of all ages? Sadly, no.

But wait... all is not lost. Although Drag Me to Hell mostly fails as horror, it achieves sporadic success as a comedy. The conundrum lies in locating the line of demarcation between intentional and unintentional humor. With Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness, Raimi demonstrated that he enjoys spiking his blood and gore with satire, wit, and the Three Stooges. Some of that is in evidence here. Unfortunately, there are also times when the direction and acting are so ham-fisted that intended scares provoke chortles instead of gasps. Even if one shifts mindset and looks at Drag Me to Hell as pure satire, its effectiveness is middling. It feels bloated and overlong and the occasional bursts of laughter don't warrant a 100-minute investment of time.

Loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is vying with a co-worker for the vacant position of assistant manager. She needs the promotion not only to secure her future but to impress the parents of her boyfriend, Clay (Justin Long), who think she's not good enough for their son. The bank manager, Mr. Jacks (David Paymer), delights in playing Christine against her rival and watching the sparks fly. One day, a crone with the improbable name of Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) comes to the bank asking for relief from a mortgage she can't pay. She's behind on her payments and is about to lose her house. Mr. Jacks leaves the resolution of the matter to Christine and she decides to take the hard-line to demonstrate her toughness. Mrs. Ganush does not react well to this. A verbal confrontation leads to a physical alteration which culminates in the old woman leveling a curse at Christine's jacket button. Soon thereafter, Christine begins having disturbing visitations by things that go bump in the night, and she solicits the aid of a mystic (Dileep Rao) to rid her of the curse and its associated devil who, after three days of haunting her, will claim her soul and drag her bodily to hell. Before that, she has a conversation with a talking goat and a life-and-death struggle with a psychotic handkerchief.

If one wants to analyze the storyline, it's not hard to distinguish allegorical intentions. With Christine representing bankers and Mrs. Ganush standing in for the undertrodden whose circumstances are ignored by greedy capitalists, Drag Me to Hell could be seen as a morality play - Raimi's commentary on the current economic climate. It's tough to take much in this movie seriously, however, since it is constructed in a way that defies thoughtful interpretation.

Christine isn't the usual sympathetic victim. She's narcissistic, cruel, and unstable. She's the kind of character you end up rooting against, recognizing that she probably deserves what's coming to her, especially after what she does to a kitten. (Filmmakers don't have a problem doing ugly things to cats in movies; imagine if this had been a puppy.) In fact, after that incident, the guy sitting next to me muttered that he hoped she would die. I'm not sure that's the reaction Raimi was hoping for. Drag Me to Hell doesn't have the correct perspective if audiences are supposed to be rooting for the demon.

The screenplay features a clumsily handled last-act twist that should cause acute embarrassment to viewers who don't see it coming. It's as obvious a story contortion as I have ever seen and its recognition transforms the final 20 minutes into an exercise in pointlessness. In fact, this plot element is so abysmal that I expected Raimi to have something else up his sleeve (such as the twist being a blind) - but his arms are bare. Disappointing doesn't begin to describe it.

I'm trying to figure out what happened to Alison Lohman's acting ability. She was good in White Oleander and Matchstick Men, but was wooden and unconvincing a few years later in Where the Truth Lies. Here, she's less impressive than in the Atom Egoyan melodrama (where at least she took her clothing off) , evidencing an over-the-top awkwardness. By conventional standards, it's a poor performance, but one has to consider whether that's what Raimi wanted. After all, Bruce Campbell's Evil Dead work was anything but subtle and nuanced. Lohman, however, is not Campbell, who has made overacting into an art form. Justin Long, playing the supportive boyfriend, is okay, but was it really necessary to surround his character with Macs? (It would have been funny to have shown Clay using a P.C., but Long's contract probably forbids that.)

I won't argue that Drag Me to Hell is entirely without merit. Parts of it are entertaining, although I'm not convinced they're enjoyable entirely for the reasons intended by the filmmakers. My sense is that Evil Dead II is Raimi's target, but the elements don't all fall into place, and Lohman can't fill Campbell's shoes. There are echoes of the "old Raimi" - enough to confuse mainstream PG-13 horror fans but not enough to please his adherents. For those who want to sample Drag Me to Hell's brand of cheesiness, the best approach is to bypass its theatrical release and wait a little while until the DVD shows up in the discount bins at your local S-Mart.

Drag Me to Hell (United States, 2009)

Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver, Dileep Rao, David Paymer, Adriana Barazza
Screenplay: Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi
Cinematography: Peter Deming
Music: Christopher Young
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:39
U.S. Release Date: 2009-05-29
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1