After a decade long interlude with Spiderman, Sam Raimi returns to his roots with the incredibly economical Drag Me to Hell. Raimi bridges the gap between the different phases of career with his latest; it has the subversive, goofy sense of humor of his early B-Movies, as well as the prestige polish of his Hollywood efforts. The result is an uncharacteristically idiosyncratic Hollywood blockbuster. And while it is easy to take Drag Me to Hell strictly at face value; indeed, it does provide the visceral scares that the advertising campaign promises, to do so would be to ignore the film's joyous sense of humor, grounding in horror film history (especially the great Val Lewton), and unique moral sensibility (yes, I just said that).
An anti-corporate message takes on particular resonance during recession ridden times, and Drag Me to Hell could perhaps be classified as a horror morality play. When we're introduced to the main character, Christine Brown (played by Alison Lohman), she is practicing her diction, and Raimi frames her against the Los Angeles skyline; the landscape of high-rises, corporate offices, and Starbucks that she is conforming to. Later details illuminate that she was a farm girl, and a fat one at that, and it's details like this that really speak volumes about her character and her motivations. The first scene set in her loan office establishes that she is one of two people in the office being considered for a promotion to Assistant Manager, though her number-crunching boss informs her that she needs to be a little 'tougher' in her approach if she wants to succeed in the corporate world (in other words, she needs to dissociate herself from human qualities such as empathy--- little things like understanding get in the way of the bottom line). Her competition for the promotion is one of those disingenuous, self-serving ladder-climbers who will let nothing, least of all fairness, stand in his way.
With this bit of information in mind, an old woman comes into the office asking for a third extension on her mortgage--- times are hard, and she hasn't been able to foot the bill, though she hopes to be in better economic shape soon (don't we all). It's clear that Christine is conflicted about what to do, at first, but she eventually decides to play by the rules and denies the woman's request--- she rejects her basic humanity for the sake of corporate interests. The old woman proceeds to beg, and Christine further rejects her plea and has security escort her out ("You handled that just right", her boss informs her). However, when Christine goes to her car that night, she finds the woman in her backseat--- and, in a scene that is simultaneously scary, shocking, and hilarious, the woman attacks her and, eventually, rips a button off her coat and puts a curse on it: the owner of the cursed object will be, obviously, dragged off to hell in three days time.
It's worth noting that, unlike traditional horror movies which punctuate their scares with a laugh, Raimi tosses humor into the mix at unexpected moments, to the point where you don't know what's around the next corner--- a scare, a laugh, or some combination of the two. This is a testament to Raimi's ability to play the audience like a piano (to paraphrase Hitchock), as well as his unique directorial sensibility. Raimi deserves credit for being able to inject so much of himself into his films (the Spiderman movies, especially the much maligned third installment, stand as some of the most uniquely personable blockbusters of the modern era), and Drag Me to Hell is nothing if not a splash of imagination and personality in a movie scene dominated by an adherence to formula--- especially horror movies. There are grotesqueries abound, this is a horror movie after all, but unlike the Saw or Hostel movies which lays on the blood and guts strictly for a gross-out effect (they do this to supplant their lack of imagination), Raimi actually uses the Macabre in a subversively hilarious way. The scares that the movie earns don't come from throwing extreme amounts of violence up on the screen, but rather genuine cinematic craftsmanship.
And this craftsmanship has a grounding in horror film history. It begins with a retro, though not archaic Universal logo, and this sets the stage for the film's unique bridging of classical and modern aesthetics (that he made the film with a studio rich in expressionistic horror makes this all the more fitting). The way the film deals with the occult and the way objects come to symbolize the demonic--- in this case a necklace and, predominantly, a button, is very much reminiscent of the films of the legendary Val Lewton, notably his collaborations with the great Jacques Tourneur (the demon itself feels lifted from the duo's Night of the Demon). A scene near the end of the film, set in a graveyard during the thunderstorm-to-end-all-thunderstorms (is there any other kind of climactic downpour?), is a wonderful and exciting encapsulation of Tourneur and his grounding in expressionistic film making; slanted angles, distorted sets, and swelling, intense strings on the soundtrack. She puts herself in the graveyard to return the Old Woman's gift back to her, in effect casting her to the depths of hell come morning.
In spite of the film's tendency towards classicism, Drag Me to Hell is thoroughly 21st century. Alison Lohman, previously unknown by me, re-enforces the film's classical/modern dichotomy, and she is fantastic as the conflicted, tortured Christine Brown. Lohman, though very pretty, certainly doesn't have an un-real pin up quality about her, and it's refreshing to see a dynamic portrait of a woman at the center of a summer film. At once vulnerable and self-sufficient, there isn't a hint of misogyny in Raimi's portrayal of Christine--- though he undoubtedly is getting a kick out of the morality play element of his story, which isn't to say that Raimi tortures her (and therefore the audience) out of mean-spirited sadism. Again, Christine's punishment arises from her greed and rejection of her sympathy for the old woman. Her rival in the office, Stu, doesn't have any sympathy to begin with--- she does, however, and Christine ignoring her sympathetic tendencies is worse than not having them to begin with. The corporate world thrives on people betraying their values in the manner she does. She sells herself short for materialistic reasons, and this is where the film's unique morality shines through.
But this element isn't really illuminated until the film's masterfully subversive final scene. After the aforementioned graveyard sequence, the movie tricks us (it tricked me, anyway) into believing that all the nasty stuff is behind us and Christine has a nice, cushy promotion waiting for her when she returns from a weekend excursion with her good-looking, if bimbo-ish boyfriend. On her way to meet him at the train station, she notices a coat she desperately wants in a store window and, in a clever mirroring of the film's opening with the old woman, Christine asks the store-keeper to bend the rules for her (the store was closed when she arrived), and she purchases the coat as a symbol of her new-found status. There is something that rings false about this bizarrely saccharine and materialistic ending, and that's because Raimi has one final trick up his sleeve. The moment Christine thinks she's out of the woods, her boyfriend reveals that she shouldn't have gotten rid of the old coat because he found the button that the old woman tore off. In a delicious final irony that brings to mind the final moments of De Palma's Carrie, Christine is swallowed by the earth and sucked into the pits of hell as the film's title is splashed onto the screen, highlighting it's literal-mindedness.
Drag Me to Hell is everything that it promises to be and more. It works on so many different levels that it would have to count as one of the most well-constructed summer movies of recent times; every part is put perfectly in its place and oiled to perfection. It's economic, scary and (forgive me) funny as all hell. Raimi's refined aesthetic sense suits the story well, and it's his use of audio-visual technique that generates the tension, but he does this without going for cheap or unearned scares. If nothing else, Raimi illustrates with Drag Me to Hell the relevance of horror, while being diminished by hackery and nihilism, is as powerful now as it has ever been.