Movies ought to be meaner. I know intellectually that there should be movies with a lighter touch, ones that are deeply moving and ones that are lacking in any emotional manipulation. But the kind of visceral feeling I received when I first watched Drag Me To Hell, Sam Raimi’s return to the equally screwball and gory horror genre that he represented, is what makes me most proud to be a passionate consumer of the art and a follower of director career arcs.
The 2009 film was Raimi’s return to horror following his Spider-Man trilogy, which concluded with the often derided Spider-Man 3. The struggles behind the production of the third installment has been well documented, including studio notes and forced story arcs, and Raimi himself seems to have disavowed it himself. His career arc is quite fascinating. He begins in independent cinema, making zany horror-comedies with his friends that become cult classics (Evil Dead trilogy), climbs his way into the studio system as a gun for hire on mid-budget pictures (The Quick and the Dead, A Simple Plan), and then fully ascends to the top of blockbuster cinema as the author of a franchise. As his authorship deteriorates with Spider-Man 3, he steps down to go back to his Evil Dead roots. Drag Me to Hell isn’t just a return to form. It is a diss track on film.
The story follows Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), a successful loan officer of a bank who is the recipient of a supernatural curse after evicting an old woman from her home. She attempts to work for a promotion and continue a stable relationship with her boyfriend Clay (Justin Long), but this evil curse is using its power to destroy her life.
Raimi loves to abuse his main characters, whether it’s Ash Williams or Peter Parker. When those two are slapped, thrown through a wall, or have projectiles launched at them, viewers don’t sense danger from them. The mayhem sent toward them is recognized as a fetization and sensationalism of screwball violence. When bodily fluid from the supernatural force is projectiled at Christine, it feels cruel. This mostly comes from her gender, age, and petite body. For my viewing experience, a portion of this discomfort also came from an uncertainty of my sympathy for her. While not labeled as one, the movie, based on the viewer’s mood or state of mind, can play as a dark comedy. The line is muddled throughout the runtime of whether or not it is appropriate to chuckle at the sheer carnage thrown at the way of poor Christine.
While Raimi would go on to direct a mediocre Wizard of Oz sequel following this, Drag Me to Hell is in many ways a twisted Oz adaptation. Christine, the farm girl, makes it to the big city and thrives at the cost of others’ livelihood, and is satanically punished for it. The parallels to this film’s release coinciding with the Great Recession of 2008 is conspicuous, but the script was written way before the financial crisis. Raimi is the furthest thing from a director with social and political messages, but the attitude of the film is representative of a time of distress. The kind of vicious punishment Christine, as a loan officer, suffers through would be a comforting vibe for audiences in 2009.
Raimi has always been a pastiche filmmaker with traditional sensibilities. His Spider-Man was so radical because it refused to be hip and new wave, and instead went for earnestness. For as mean as Drag Me to Hell is, it is still formally old school with its use of practical effects and puppeteer work. Raimi zipping the camera across space and spraying Lohman’s face with unidentified goo has the same wide-eyed passion of movie-making as it did in the 80s. On a more perverse level, I get a kick out of Raimi cooking up new gross excrements to throw at his actors’ faces all as a form of venting due to his frustrations on Spider-Man 3. In his mind, Avi Arad, his boss at Sony who forced him to add Venom to his story for merchandising, is the one being covered in excrement and not Lohman.
The metatextual commentary of Raimi unleashing his frustrations on this film is the most logical cause as to how he made the first truly cynical film of his career. While violent and gory, Evil Dead seems benign. There is even a sense of sympathy for the characters in A Simple Plan as they continue to push their luck out of pure greed. The guy had an interest in taking on a syrupy, dad-core Kevin Costner baseball movie. Even at his most zany and rebellious nature, Raimi is rooted in creating whole-hearted entertainment. Despite Drag Me to Hell being positioned as a return of form, the film is really more of a far cry for Raimi. It was the perfect kind of film to make as he got into older age and in the aftermath of dealing with the burden of franchise filmmaking.
As a tradition I’ve merely stumbled on, I tried to find a good passage from Roger Ebert’s review. I’m afraid that his review is really lacking. Anything he wrote circa 2009, when his health was quite poor in the midst of his battle with cancer. He’s a legend who earned the privilege to write reviews that were more about the plot and character beats of the horror genre rather than his usual populist analysis.
For most movies I watch, even the great ones, I always wish the ending was a little bit more harsh, dark, sad, or pick any adjective evoking negative emotions. Most movies are cynical for the first three quarters and then lose the tone in the 4th. Landing the plane is difficult, and because of that, filmmakers become too concerned with wrapping up the plot cleanly and concisely. This is particularly true with genre pictures. In the closing moments of Drag Me to Hell, I was expecting to be disappointed by an ending that plays it safe. I kept checking how much time was left, holding my breath for the tide to change. Christine waits for a train with Clay, and everything seems to be merry, signaling that she may have learned a lesson in morality. In fact, she did learn a lesson. Instead of passing her curse on to another living person, she digs underground in the pouring rain for the grave of the old woman who was ground zero and passes it on back to her, which was summoned in the form of a coat pin. Unbeknownst to her, she sent the wrong envelope, one that didn’t contain the pin. Her good deed was not good enough despite the effort, and as the title promises, Christine is dragged to hell, and the set piece is as mean as anything in the film. Now that’s what I’m talking about.