Director: Sam Raimi
Starring: Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver, Dileep Rao
After eight years entangled in Spiderman movies, the return to the horror genre by director Sam Raimi feels like a stadium rock band playing again in the grimy clubs where they cut their fangs. Drag Me To Hell, which opens in Bratislava this week, reunites the man behind the gore-classic Evil Dead films with his first love. And, just like those energetic shows played by returning rockers, it is part nostalgia trip and part showcase for a huge, new and refined catalogue of skills acquired while vacationing in the mainstream.
This is good news for sadists but disastrous for fingernails. Raimi has lost none of his verve and intuition for horror, but he has now married these devilish talents with the cultivated sheen of a Hollywood heavyweight. Drag Me To Hell is wonderfully slick and stacked with arch humour. It is also relentlessly terrifying.
The belief we’re required to suspend here – the plot, in other words – concerns an ambitious loan assistant Christine (Alison Lohman) employed in a classically antiseptic high-street bank. She refuses to extend credit to a mysterious and hygienically-challenged old woman named Mrs Ganush (Lorna Raver), who, with fitting hysteria in these credit-crunch days, crumples into a wailing heap and then waits for Christine in the car park and places a curse on her, promising that her beleaguered soul will be roasted within three days.
One cannot be sure of the full intricacies of this hexing, partly because it’s impossible not to view the sequence without hands over your eyes, but partly because it makes no sense at all—not even after an over-earnest mystic (Dileep Rao) expounds on themes of cloven-hoofed lamias and ancient curses and hands over a book entitled “Animal Sacrifice in the Service of the Deities”. This tome, we would be correct to assume, does not bode well for Christine’s kitten, in one scene pottering mischievously around the house, in the next interred in the backyard.
The rest of the film deals with the pressing matter of Christine’s soul and the attempts of the hell-draggers to do their bidding. Christine is supported only by a weedy boyfriend, the cardboard mystic and a few of his cronies with axes to grind against the underworld. It makes for a glorious mismatch that we’re not certain who we want to win; Raimi is careful to imbue his characters with only as much soul as we don’t mind being brutally tormented.
In a period when horror tends either towards slow psychological torment, as perfected by Japanese directors, or gruesome pseudo-realism (Saw, and the like) this is a refreshing romp in the traditional, screeching style. Short interludes of calmness punctuate what amounts to a sustained barrage of paranormal incidents, so much so that anxiety only heightens when a rare lull descends. It will only be a matter of seconds until it is interrupted, and I ended up simply wishing to get the whole thing over with as soon as possible, like a child reluctantly holding out a trembling arm for a Band Aid to be ripped off.
The screening of Drag Me To Hell was the only time I have been grateful for a gaggle of rowdy teenagers in the cinema, chattering throughout. Their terror, expressed via the medium of guffaws and popcorn leaping from its box, at least reminded me of the world to which I actually belong, and one of their numbers “I’m running away, man!” on the stroke of the final blackout was as efficient a four-letter review as I’ve encountered.
This film is a superlative effort in as much as I have never, ever been this remorselessly frightened for so long, nor so instantly and wholeheartedly gratified by its brisk payoff. The final minute of Drag Me To Hell might actually be cinematic perfection: you may see it coming, but the delicious economy of this resolution should serve a wake-up call to the purveyors of the overwrought twist ending that dominates, and frequently ruins, much of the genre.
Let’s be clear here: Drag Me To Hell is not going to get you to start liking horror films if you don’t already. But it will remind you precisely why you hate them so much. And that, probably, is an even higher achievement.