With all the press quotes about how scary this is, it must have been confusing to people at the time when what they actually got is another wacky Sam Raimi film. What a surprise. But I know, as you probably do reading this, that his body of work is full of garish colours, crazy camera movements and gross out splatter gags. But with Ash vs Evil Dead back for more TV episodes I sat down to reconsider this big screen venture into demonic madness. It was something I slighted at the time as being kind of amusing but lacklustre, however recently I felt compelled to reconsider.
To paraphrase Dan O'Bannon, if I can't make them laugh, I'll scare them instead. The reverse, or the combination of these ideas is also a good route. As someone who worked on Alien and Return of the Living Dead I think he had a good idea exactly what he was doing in either case. Drag Me To Hell is of course on the funny end of the scale. But I've heard many complain that it's silly instead of straight out disturbing or shocking, which is odd considering that horror and comedy have been mixing up the kind of punchlines you can deliver in a story like this for decades. Laugh or wince; it's a varied and malleable genre with plenty of opportunity to do more than just the same old blood and jump scares.
As a story this is a pretty interesting one in terms of the characters involved. Like the Evil Dead series its hero goes through a lot of trauma, however here we're asking to consider if they deserve it or not. Christine (Alison Lohman) has her eye on promotion at the bank she works in, and it's this ambition that will cause her so much suffering later. She's working hard to beat a colleague to the position while trying to escape her rural childhood and also impress her boyfriend's snooty parents. But this all depends on her manager who tells her that despite setting up an impressive financial deal she will need to show an ability to make tough decisions. Enter Mrs Ganush (Lorna Raver), an elderly woman on her third strike with an overdue mortgage and someone Christine chooses to make an example of to the boss.
Mrs Ganush will soon become the bane of Christine's life, after being denied more time to pay the bank she curses her with a visit from The Lamia, an evil spirit that will take her soul to the underworld in three days. Who do you side with? Christine can see she's had chances already and could also live with relatives. While greed and ambitious choices at the cost of others are not virtuous ideals, is eternal damnation really deserved? I found myself considering both perspectives during the movie as the supernatural forces became more and more vicious and Christine's choices become more desperate. It's implied that years ago Mrs Ganush put the same curse on a young boy for petty theft, so both sides are questionable. She's a pitiable character but certainly the villain here, which makes it all the more memorable.
What makes the film so much fun is the way the curse manifests itself as things escalate. It's frequently disgusting with scenes involving vomit, nosebleeds, corpses, flies and showers of mud coming into play. A recurring joke involves Christine having hair pulled out. The big set piece is a fight between the two leading ladies inside a car where they beat each other with random objects as the vehicle is crashed around the parking lot. A big seance sequence later on is also really well done in terms of crazy possession moments and also grand set design. It manages to create a great mix of the old style Evil Dead moments with bigger and far more detailed scenery. Not everything works and I feel that both the casting of Justin Long as a college professor and the use of pretty bad CG effects are both very out of place here. But as funhouse rides which blend humour and nastiness go this is a worthwhile experience that holds up a lot more than I recall.