- Rated PG-13
- Buy the BD
All photos © Universal Pictures
Reviewed by Bob Westal
eing in the same general ethnic/religious cohort doesn't give me the right to speak for writer-director Sam Raimi and his co-writer brother Ivan, but this Jewish kid was just a little bit traumatized when he first learned about the traditional Christian concept of hell. Judaism has no hell other than guilt and death, so learning about the fire, the pitchforks, and the eternal torment – and that millions believed that, by virtue of my non-Christianity, I was going to suffer all of it – was a little traumatic. I hadn't even done anything bad enough yet to be grounded.
In “Drag Me to Hell,” Raimi and company fashion what is in some respects an only slightly less unjust moral universe, in which the failure to perform a single mitvah (usually translated from Hebrew as a good deed, but in reality it means the act of obeying a commandment) is translated from Jewish recrimination into Catholic punishment of the pre-Vatican II variety. In this case, a single selfish choice lands loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) in serious danger of eternal damnation after being cursed, Gypsy style, by Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), easily the least attractive woman of any age in Los Angeles. It gets worse; the woman has very sharp and very ugly dentures, and she's not afraid to use them, right alongside the supernatural abilities available to all Romani movie females over age 60. Naturally, poor Christine’s relationship with her understanding psychologist boyfriend (Justin “I'm a Mac” Long, playing straight man for a change) will be somewhat strained as she is subjected to one bizarre supernatural attack after another – including surprise visits in her car, a projectile nosebleed (at least a pint's worth), and the old eyeball-in-the-“Harvest Cake” trick.
“Drag Me to Hell” is being hailed as a return to “Spider-Man” director Sam Raimi’s roots, along the lines of his “Evil Dead” films. Being a big old cinema wuss, I can’t be sure. (I’ve only seen the comically horrific “Evil Dead II,” while moderately soused.) But I will say that this flick brings the fun back into the old fright show and brings to mind a host of low-budget mid-century scare flicks without stinting on the shocks. This is not horror comedy along the lines of “Shaun of the Dead” or even the more violent and steadily gruesome “Slither.” This is genuine horror that somehow manages to trigger the laugh reflex at the exact same moment it's offering up the stuff of nightmares. It doesn't see spooking the audience as a form of torment, but as what it actually is: sharp entertainment with just a teensy bit of thought thrown in for fun. Nearly all the scares in this film elicit a sort of nervous, self-aware laugh at the absurdity of a situation, even as the actors, including a strong supporting cast, treat the subject with the sort of grave seriousness you would if angry crones really could condemn people to eternal torment.
The banking industry, on the other hand, should probably sue; David Paymer, as Christine’s unctuous boss, and Reggie Lee as her weasel of a coworker, do near-perfect jobs of persuading us that hell might be too good for some people. In a small but memorable role, Bojana Novakovic strikes just the right note as Mrs. Ganush’s shockingly beautiful and hypnotically insolent granddaughter. In more crucial roles, Dileep Rao is entirely believable as a sincere psychic, as is Adrianna Barraza as a medium with a big score to settle.
That leaves our two leads, Lohman and Long. Both walk a fine line between eliciting our sympathy and turning it away. This would be a less fun movie if we ever felt 100 percent certain that, in some small way, they don’t both kind of deserve what might be coming to them.
Still, this is a horror movie which may have secured its perhaps too mild PG-13 rating by keeping its gross-outs more or less nonviolent. In fact, probably the grossest and scariest thing on screen is Mrs. Ganush herself. That's no insult to Lorna Raver, who usually plays judges and professors on assorted television shows. No, it's praise for her deftly, er, juicy performance (is phlegm a juice?) and some first rate work by a large team of make-up and effects artists who also managed such nifty moments as an adorably deceased kitten emerging whole out of Mrs. Ganush’s unholy mouth. Listerine might be called for.
No doubt about it, “Drag Me to Hell” is a good time at the movies. It's honest entertainment that flies its B-movie flag high and it deserves to make a mint, even if it's being dragged to box office purgatory. Indeed, my mere three and a half stars out of five should in no way be taken as a less than glowing praise. This is a movie that aims perhaps a bit lower than it needs to, but hits its marks precisely. At the same time, however, there’s a necessary coldness at its heart, and I’m honestly unsure whether it’s a plus or a minus. I'm convinced, however, that this big inner chill is part of the reason why it's still creeping me out just a bit. Bravo.
Unrated Director's Cut Blu-Ray Review:
The Blu-ray release of “Drag Me to Hell” may not look like much, but the sole special feature that has been included – the generically titled “Production Video Diaries” – is loaded with over 30 minutes of great behind-the-scenes footage. Highlights include the making of the bloody nose sequence and parking lot fight, as well a look at the various departments involved in the cemetery scene, the nightmare scene (you would have never guessed they used a puppet), and the big finale. Also included are brief snippets on production design, make-up effects, stunts and even a profile on Justin Long. Still, it feels like the disc is somewhat lacking in bonus material, and although the addition of an unrated director’s cut is appreciated, a commentary by Sam Raimi or even a few deleted scenes would have gone a long way in making it a more complete package.