After the big budget triptych of the Spider-Man films, Sam Raimi returned to a simpler supernatural tale that served him well on the Evil Dead films.
It’s easy to bill Drag Me to Hell as Raimi’s ‘return to classic form,’ and on one level, the director does indulge in some visually loopy cinematography, as well as abusing the crap out of his lead actor for some elaborate scenes between a supernatural demon and the cursed soul. Even ‘the classic,’ Raimi’s beat-up Oldsmobile Delta 88 sedan from The Evil Dead appears several times, but there’s a sense Hell was conceived as a riff on Jacques Tourneur’s classic British shocker Night of the Demon (released as Curse of the Demon to U.S. audiences in 1957).
Raimi and occasional collaborator Ivan Raimi basically took the premise of Demon – a person is doomed to be devoured by a demonic force after being cursed – and expanded that film’s final act, wherein the hero becomes cursed, and seeks help in understanding and beating the curse.
In Demon, the villain remains very much alive after applying the brand of death onto his victim, whereas in Hell, it’s an old woman who dies, leaving her victim, a waifish bank executive named Christine in competition with a greedy coworker for a promotion, to experiences the effects of the curse before using the help of a local mystic.
The problem with Raimis’ script is that it has a compelling opening and a finale that includes a battle and twist ending (much like Demon), but everything in the middle feels like loosely drawn scenes meant to fill in the script’s under-developed midsection. The biggest lump is Christine’s boyfriend Clay (Justin Long), who usually drops into the drama after Christine goes through another demonic attack in her home, or bizarre hallucinations and behaviour at work. The lone scene where the two are on even footing occurs at Clay’s parents, during a dinner scene that really fulfils no plot function other than to offer more supernatural weirdness, and by then Raimi has already offered up plenty of scenes featuring Christine under duress (often with various fetid goo, insectoidal crud and organs blasted into her open maw).
Strangest of all, Hell lacks a sense of dramatic urgency; the opening setup that has Christine cursed by the old woman is compelling, a car fight is spectacularly sadistic, and the death of the woman increases Christine’s desperation in averting the demon, but the screenwriters’ allowance of giving their heroine three days to solve her problems means three days of teasing that becomes fairly repetitive.
As a retro B-movie, Hell is adequate, but Raimi’s fans will undoubtedly enjoy the director’s playfulness, which includes starting the film with the 1970s Universal-MCA logo, employing some wild sound effects, seeing lead Alison Lohman get the Bruce Campbell rag-doll treatment during human-demon fights, and some blink-fast-and-they’re-gone cameos by Ted Raimi (who played the demonic hag in Evil Dead) and the film’s composer, Christopher Young.
As Christine, Lohman almost pulls it off, yet she still looks like the pubescent waif from Matchstick Men (2003); and Long’s rare quips means even his character can’t evolve into a comedic sidekick. Their unfortunate banality is somewhat offset by Christine’s greedy co-worker Stu Rubin (Reggie Lee); and the old woman (Lorna Raver) who’s been made up to resemble the ugly hag from the first two Evil Dead films.
It’s not a complete disappointment, but Drag Me to Hell could and should’ve been much more than a quickie supernatural thriller.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan