Drag me to hell

by Devender Sellars

It had been a long few weeks — work involved and busy, quite a few concerts and other obligations on top of winter’s last gasp of cold weather making the days stretch out entirely too long. What better way to decompress over the weekend than a modern horror film I had also waited quite a while to see?

Cue up Sam Raimi to provide the necessary escape. I have a soft spot for his work, as the hilarious Army of Darkness was a gateway drug in my trek down horror-movie lane. It was in my college days that I was introduced the Bruce Campbell flick that

had it all — marching skeletons, an angry book with teeth, dry one-liners and a cheesy reference to Gulliver’s Travels. I later experienced the campy glory of the Evil Dead films, for which Raimi and Campbell became well-known in the B-movie world.

That later led to my love of zombies. But that’s another column.

With this excitement, and good reviews from friends, I started Sam Raimi’s 2009 gem Drag Me to Hell. Apparently this script was written in the early ’90s, but shelved due to Raimi’s involvement with the Spiderman movies. And, I can enthusiastically say that even with a PG-13 rating, this film was worth the wait (though come to think of it, I watched the director’s unrated cut, which I recommend).

Drag Me To Hell has all of the fixings of a great horror set-up: young and na’ve loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) crosses an elderly gypsy by denying an extension on her overdue mortgage payments. The elderly Mrs. Ganush brings down an ancient curse that will bring three days of torment, followed by death.

Christine goes to dangerous lengths to appease her boss, played appropriately muted by David Paymer, for a bank promotion. Christine is innocent enough that you really feel for her, which makes the horror seem that much more visceral, even with the comedy of errors of trying to fix her predicament.

What follows is classic horror fare of imagined noises, visions and dread mixed with not-so-subtle comedy of a nosebleed that covers an entire desk and co-worker, and a denture sight gag.

Camp elements are in full effect from the beginning, with a silly flashback scene to the title of the film stamped across the entire screen with a huge bang.

The over-her-head heroine is feared for and laughed at during the same scenes. She is punched into her mouth, literally getting a mouthful of an imaginary specter’s hand, and later tips over a casket, empyting internal fluid and a flailing corpse on herself.

Like any good horror flick I enjoy, the supernatural forces were barely in view. The evil spirits are just beyond the glass, on the other side of the door — which makes it all the more scary when the jolts of violence occur. The film’s plot is rather predictable, with surprises coming only in those sharp moments of shock and awe. Still, the ride was thrilling as it chugged along to its inevitable, obvious conclusion. And the film doesn’t take any of itself too seriously, so neither did I. When a supernatural handkerchief tormented from beyond the grave, I just laughed my ass off.

I really appreciated Raimi using a female lead that functioned both as the terrified girl we’re so used to seeing in horror flicks as well as the tough heroine who fights back, unwilling to accept her cursed fate without a fight. The transformation, while exaggerated, gives you the glimmer of hope that she might actually dodge her precarious fate. In a particularly empowering scene, she digs up a dead body in the pouring rain to try and pass on the curse. Her earlier screams and howls have been replaced by yells and declarations amidst the rising tide.

And the film feels apropos as a modern story: To what lengths will people go to get ahead in a country of shrinking jobs and cutthroat competition? Christine denies the loan to the old lady, even though she knows it’s wrong, to appease her boss and try to move up the ladder at the bank. She didactly exclaims later that this was not a good thing to do, for myriad reasons.

Then when she knows she is cursed, she moves quickly from mild-mannered country girl to animal-sacrificing and grave-digging madwoman to save her own skin. And while the obvious read on these actions are desperation and self-preservation, underneath there is the hint that not taking responsibility for one’s actions, or dealing with their repercussions is dangerous.

Maybe, though, there’s a simpler explanation in this allegory: Don’t mess with a gypsy.