When was the last time you saw a good old-fashioned American horror flick? In a marketplace saturated with tiresome Japanese remakes, torture porn and pointless franchise reboots, bona-fide horror films are the rarest of commodity of the new century.
Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell emerges from the ashes of 50s’ B-horror classics to inject the stale genre with much-needed fresh blood. Despite its minor limitations, “Drag Me to Hell is easily the best American horror vehicle I’ve seen in a long, long time; a hilarious, gross-out fun ride with social commentary added to the mix.
Long before he became one of Hollywood’s premier go-to men thanks to the phenomenal success of the “Spider-Man franchise, Raimi sunk his teeth into film in the mid-80s with the “Evil Dead trilogy. The seamless blend between un-pc humor and grisly shocks propelled the low-budgeted series into cult classic status.
Raimi, who made the first film of the series at the age of 22, was regarded as a rebel; a young kid with an uncompromising vision and a knack for pushing the envelope.
Nearly 30 years later, Raimi returns to his roots, using the same template of the “Evil Dead films.
The pre-credit sequence sets the tone of the film. A Hispanic couple attempt to lift a hex cast upon their son for stealing a necklace from a gypsy. In an unsuccessful exorcism ceremony, set in an LA mansion, the tongues of hell reach for the kid and swallow him whole.
Thirty years later, Raimi introduces his heroine, Christine (Alison Lohman), a loan officer in the final stages of a complete makeover from a former plump farm girl to a young confident professional.
Seeking acceptance from her rich boyfriend’s parents and eying an assistant manager position, Christine – torn between doing the right thing and impressing her boss – puts her conscious to sleep, denying an old phlegm-spouting gypsy (Lorna Raver) about to lose her home an extension for her mortgage.
The gypsy lady goes down on her knees and begs for help. Christine sticks to her position and calls for security. The gypsy goes berserk, puts a fatal curse on Christine that sets off a chain of diabolical events involving monsters appearing in daylight, sudden flare-ups of blood, a meal garlanded with an eyeball and a cat butchering.
The quality of American horror has been on the decline for the most part of this decade. The best horror films of the past nine years were produced outside Hollywood. Japan continued its dominance over the genre thanks to its trademark mix between contemporary settings and folk tales; Spain proved to be a major player with the likes of “The Devil Backbone, “The Orphanage and “Rec; while French filmmakers gave their American counterparts a run for their money with a host of philosophical studies of martyrdom, grief and xenophobia (“Martyrs, “Inside, “High Tension, “Vinyan ) that set a new high for screen violence.
“Hell contains none of the sadism of the likes of “Saw and “Hostel. Its tone is frivolous. The violence is self-consciously stylized and over-the-top. The humor is macabre and ironic, veering towards the slapstick. Raimi, who clearly hasn’t lost his touch, spurs waves of anxious laughter from several superbly distasteful set pieces.
Among the funniest parts of the film is a dinner scene where Christine, still battling the curse, finds herself face to face with her boyfriend’s priggish parents. You know that nothing good could come out of this dinner when Christine blows out a fly from her nose.
Flies are one of several creatures, and objects, that penetrate Christine’s orifices, much to the enjoyment of Raimi. Scenes likes these are comically disgusting, but not sinister. For horror fans who missed the “Evil Dead series, the combination may not sit well. The biggest shortcoming of the film though is that it’s not as grisly as Raimi’s earlier works. Raimi goes as far as a PG-13 production can go, but he leaves you hungry for more.
He compensates the lack of sufficient gruesomeness with the occasional jarring camera angles and the employment of simple, yet forceful, classic horror techniques such as the use of shadows, carefully staged jump-out-of-your-seats shocks and a giddy pace. The last act is exceptionally riotous; a vaudeville of hysterics cumulating with a sardonic punch-line.
Nearly all characters are drawn intentionally as caricatures, yet I was somewhat intrigued not by Christine’s character, but by her transformation from a hapless sack to a go-getter with a tenacity to gain an undeserved absolution.
The credit-crunch backdrop Raimi sets his story in couldn’t be more relevant to present time. Christine is a victim of the corrupt, callous system as much a product of it. The choice she made was solely hers though. She doesn’t seek repentance; she simply attempts to save her skin.
Near the end of the film, when her boyfriend consoles her, telling her how a good person she is, a sense of antagonism towards her crept through my head. This is when I realized that Christine is the real villain. Her choice wasn’t driven by a survival instinct, but by greed.
Like his superb thriller “A Simple Plan, “Drag Me to Hell is, in many ways, a morality tale; a story of characters forced to confront the aftermath of their transgressions. It isn’t Raimi’s best film, but it’s a welcome return to basics after the jumbled disarray of “Spider-Man 3.
And if you’re intending to watch one Hollywood horror movie this year, this should definitely be the one.