Universal // 2009 // 99 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // October 12th, 2009
Even nice people can go to hell.
Expectation, or "hype" as they call it these days, plays a depressingly large role in how movies are received. A good film you expect to be great might be a huge disappointment, while a film that was supposed to suck when it's really okay can be a huge surprise. The problem is that filmmakers have very little control over what their audiences will expect of the films they make, and that must drive some of them crazy. Then, you have cases like Drag Me to Hell, where a venerated genre director who found mainstream success returns to the genre that made his name. Sam Raimi all but abandoned the roller-coaster slapstick gore film after Army of Darkness and his return is enough of a mixed bag to make predicting audience reaction a big problem. While some of the old Raimi magic is strongly in evidence, the overall story doesn't offer enough opportunities for Raimi's visual flair.
Apparently they don't give lessons in not pissing off gypsies in banking school. I know this because Drag Me to Hell is the story Christine Brown (Alison Lohman, Beowulf), a young bank worker angling for an assistant manager job. Her boss tells her the position needs someone who can make "tough decisions," just as Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver, The Young and the Restless) arrives at the bank. It seems that Mrs. Ganush is a gypsy woman who can't make her house payments since her eyesight got bad, and the bank has started to repossess the house after several loan extensions. Christine asks her boss for advice, and he leaves it in her hands. Hoping that impress him, Christine denies the woman an extension, even after Mrs. Ganush begs. Late, in the parking lot, Christine is attacked, and Mrs. Ganush curses her. When weird stuff starts to happen, Christine seeks the advice of Rham Jas (Dileep Rao), a psychic who says that Christine is beset by the Lamia. She will have three days of torment by the spirit, and then it will appear to drag her back to hell. Now Christine is in a race against time to rid herself of the evil spirit.
There are really two things that set Sam Raimi apart as a filmmaker: his hyper-kinetic visual style, and his slapstick-derived sense of humor. Both are in evidence from Drag Me to Hell, and both make the otherwise flat material worth watching.
The first thing I noticed about Drag Me to Hell was how quickly it settled into the usual Raimi bag of tricks. This includes sweeping camera moves, interesting close-ups, and editing that's fast but never feels staccato. Raimi is also a fan of the look of practical effects, and while CGI is definitely on display here, it takes a back seat to good old-fashioned slime and blood effects. Raimi has an eye for making seemingly mundane objects drip with dread, and that talent is on full display here. It's especially well done with Mrs. Ganush's handkerchief and the button she uses to curse our heroine. Although neither is a particularly sinister object, in Raimi's hands they exude menace.
I totally confess myself a fan of Raimi's sense of humor. He's one of the few directors who truly understands that the line between laughter and screaming is a very fine one. Some directors use laughter to break the tension after a horrific scene, but Raimi uses laughter to up the stakes, bringing all his elements to a fever pitch and then going just slightly overboard. The laughter that ensues only makes the next scare even more difficult to take. The over-the-top gore of Drag Me to Hell, especially in the squishier scenes involving Mrs. Ganush, adds to the tension. They're funny because the "eww" factor is high, but that only makes her scarier when she turns on Christine.
To go along with Raimi's visual gifts, Universal has released a fantastic looking Blu-ray release of Drag Me to Hell. It's not the kind of that encourages getting lost in the fine textures and tiny details, but both are strong with bright colors and deep blacks. I didn't see any serious compression problems or other issues. Although I notice his visuals first, Raimi is also a gifted sound editor. I imagine him in the studio like a teenager with a pallet of Red Bull twisting all the dials to eleven in a vicious frenzy. It's easy to imagine that with the DTS-HD soundtrack provided for the film. Although the track reproduces Raimi's aural aesthetic with decibels to spare, the dynamics can be a bit much, with very soft dialogue followed by extremely loud jump scares. Keep the volume remote handy for this one if you've got neighbors.
Drag Me to Hell was written by the brother Sam and Ivan Raimi, and I don't know if Spider-man has dulled Raimi's pen or not, but this script just isn't up to snuff. While the whole "in three days the Lamia will come to drag you to hell" thing sounds good on paper, in the film three days is at least a day too long and the film's second act simply meanders too much for its own good. Then there's the ending, which is telegraphed from miles away and just doesn't fit with the rest of the film. There were so many better ways to cap things off, which leaves Drag Me to Hell with a downer ending.
I, like many fans, am tired of the endless reissues of Sam Raimi's previous films, but let's face it: the man's movies make for compelling special features. He's commentary gold, he's always got interesting effects, and he usually surrounds himself with compelling actors. So, it's a little disappointing that Drag Me to Hell appears in hi-def with only a single 35-minute featurette to call its own. Don't get me wrong, it's a fine featurette that covers the film's production with interviews and BTS footage, but the lack of commentary just doesn't sit well with me.
Is Drag Me to Hell worth watching? Absolutely. Is it the genre masterpiece fans were hoping for when Sam Raimi returned to the horror-fold? Absolutely not. Your level of Raimi-love will determine whether this disc will warrant a purchase, although personally I'd wait a few months to see if there's a special edition on the horizon before plunking down my cash for this disc, even if it is an excellent presentation of the film.
Drag Me to Hell will probably result in a hung jury among fans, but this judge finds it not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2009 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Theatrical and Unrated Versions
* Video Diaries
* Digital Copy