“What we really have at the core here is a timeless story concept that was used in this film, along with many others: the idea of a character that commits a sin of greed and has to pay the terrible price for it. It’s a morality tale that many churches have told, throughout the ages. So it’s a tried and true, oldest horror story in the book, basically.” —Sam Raimi, describing DRAG ME TO HELL (but also A SIMPLE PLAN)
While Raimi was preparing what he thought would be SPIDER-MAN 4, he decided to do a smaller film first. Previously titled THE CURSED or THE LAMIA, Sam and Ivan Raimi had originally written it as a short story in 1989, then considered adapting it into a movie after ARMY OF DARKNESS. In 2002 they planned to give it to another director and produce it through Raimi and Rob Tapert’s new company Ghost House Pictures. But they decided it required a larger budget than they were dealing with at the time. Later they offered it to Edgar Wright, who didn’t feel he was right for it, and was about to do HOT FUZZ anyway.
Then, finally, Raimi realized that he should do it himself. In an interview posted on Cinema.com, he explained how working on DRAG ME TO HELL was more fulfilling than what he’d been doing:
“On this picture I could have complete creative control and final cut, which I actually had for the first time since my first film, THE EVIL DEAD. I could just do what I believed in… for the last seven or eight years I’d been working with the luxury of SPIDER-MAN type budgets, big studio productions. This was much more hands-on. No department heads to deal with – just the actors, and the technicians. And it’s much more rewarding I think.”
It was also rewarding for those of us who first knew Raimi from horror movies, and were thrilled to see him back. Not that everyone got what they wanted out of it. In my very positive 2009 review I noted others fretting about the film’s use of digital effects and its PG-13 rating (later bumped up to “unrated” on DVD), complaints that seem more irrelevant the more time passes and the more times I revisit it and love it even more. This is a movie that combines the go-for-broke energy and macabre humor of the EVIL DEAD series with the morality and character-based centers of A SIMPLE PLAN and the SPIDER-MAN trilogy. So it’s not like it’s just EVIL DEAD lite. It’s a different sort of thing. Whatever it loses in volume of rubbery fluid-spewing cackling soul-swallowers it balances with other interests.
The movie opens with a brief little prologue set in 1969. In a mansion in Pasadena, a medium named Shaun San Dema (Flor de Maria Chahua, 3 FROM HELL) performs a seance to help a boy plagued by evil spirits due to a Roma curse. An onslaught of wind and chaos is unleashed, the floor breaks open and the boy is pulled down into Hell, the shadow of his desperately reaching hand projecting onto San Dema’s horrified face. There’s a dramatic close up on her as she says, “We will meet again,” then, with an ominous clang, it smash cuts to the title.
Much later, when the protagonists in the present come to this house to ask San Dema (now played by Adriana Barraza, AMORES PERROS, RAMBO: LAST BLOOD) for help, it kinda feels like that scene was a recap of a whole other movie we’ve already seen, and it’s a thrill to see her fulfill that vow.
Alison Lohman (MATCHSTICK MEN, BEOWULF, GAMER) stars as Christine Brown, a loan officer at a small bank in L.A. Like Peter Parker she’s a sweet and relatable young underdog full of good intentions, whose insecurities and weaknesses come out when she’s challenged, causing her great torment. But this is a horror movie, not a super hero movie, so things will turn out worse for her than for Peter. Much worse.
She grew up on a pig farm, and is thoroughly ashamed of it. She listens to tapes to practice her diction and hide her accent. She’s dejected when she hears her boyfriend, Professor Clay Dalton (Justin Long, JEEPERS CREEPERS, BATTLE FOR TERRA) on the phone with his mom (Molly Cheek, “Society Woman,” SPIDER-MAN 2). She asks if the Christine he mentions is “the one from the farm” and reminds him about some other woman who went to Yale and is “a very successful attorney.” So there are class issues. She also has a tortured relationship with food, having lost weight since she was younger, so she’ll stare longingly at cupcakes in a bakery window, but won’t let herself have one.
She’s at least kind enough to herself to recognize that she deserves a promotion to the assistant manager position that’s open. But her boss, Mr. Jacks (David Paymer, PAYBACK, in a role Bruce Campbell had to turn down because of Burn Notice) says he’s still deciding between her and the fucking new guy, ultra-smarmy douchebag Stu (Reggie Lee, THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, FRANKENFISH). Mr. Jacks likes that Stu is “quite aggressive” and “someone who’s not afraid to crunch the numbers and make the tough decisions.”
Then an old Hungarian woman named Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver, FREEWAY, ARMORED) comes in asking for a third extension on her mortgage. Christine asks Mr. Jacks if she can allow it, and he says it’s up to her. Wanting to prove she’s aggressive and not afraid to make the tough decisions and all that bullshit she denies the loan.
Mrs. Ganush doesn’t take it well. She makes a big show of dropping to her knees and begging. “This is my home!” she cries. “I’m really sorry,” Christine says, sounding sincere, even though she’s obviously not sorry enough to just give the extension.
This is, of course, about the pressures of capitalism, a system that, whatever its pluses, certainly tends to reward people who choose money over compassion. It’s also about the boy’s club that overlooks women’s work and pushes them to be more ruthless in order to be taken seriously. Christine is the one training Stu how to do the job but she’s still the one Mr. Jacks sends to buy sandwiches. Stu’s most authentically shitty moment is falsely accusing her of getting his order wrong, then after she corrects him and walks away, looking at the boss and giving a smile and shrug. You’re so sure he’s gonna make some joke about “that time of the month” that he doesn’t even have to.
An interesting aspect of the film’s morality is that it expects us to understand that Christine’s choice is the wrong one even while stacking the deck against Mrs. Ganush. She’s an asshole, and she’s grotesque. She has a creepy glass eye, she calls attention to her grey, cracked fingernails by annoyingly rapping them on the desk, she coughs bright yellow phlegm into her handkerchief, and her teeth are chipped and rotten, even though they turn out to be dentures. When Christine goes to talk to Mr. Jacks, Mrs. Ganush’s whole demeanor changes, like she was putting on an act. She doesn’t know Christine is looking when she pours the candy dish into her purse, which pains me as a funny Raimi piling-it on bit that’s also probly an offensive stereotype.
But I like that her being gross and kind of an asshole doesn’t make it any less upsetting to see her fall down while begging Christine, who yells for security. After seeing the woman completely humiliated, Mr. Jacks sympathetically tells Christine, “You handled that just right, you know.” Taking away a woman’s home of 30 years and causing a big scene puts her at the top of the list for the promotion.
The EVIL DEAD shit kicks in heavy when Christine leaves work late and sees that one of the few cars still in the parking garage is the one she saw Mrs. Ganush leaving in earlier – Raimi’s/Scotty’s/Ash’s/the Coen Brothers’/Annie’s/Uncle Ben’s Oldsmobile. Leaves blow around on the ground as she eyes it. When she gets in her car, she sees Mrs. Ganush’s handkerchief floating across the garage, onto her windshield, and then around her car, and she slowly turns, watching it, until she’s facing Mrs. Ganush herself sitting in the dark in her back seat.
Okay, here’s a scene that I can’t imagine another director doing. (And maybe they couldn’t, because reportedly they spent two weeks filming it, and most directors don’t get that luxury.) Christine has a brutal fight with Mrs. Ganush inside her car. There is hair and earring pulling. Christine reaches into her bin of office supplies for something to defend herself with, finds a stapler, and staples the old lady’s forehead and eyelid. She starts hitting the gas and intentionally rams her car to send the un-seat-belted Mrs. Ganush flying, hitting her head on the dashboard, ejecting her dentures.
In a purely Raimi masterstroke of repulsiveness, Mrs. Ganush bites Christine with her slobbery, toothless jaw, like she’s trying to swallow her chin. When she puts her teeth back in and goes for seconds, Christine rams a metal ruler down her throat. And the fight continues after that! Throughout it, Mrs. Ganush will occasionally switch from vicious to upset, and Christine will look sympathetic, and then get attacked again. But when she manages to lock the old lady outside of the car she laughs and calls her “you old bitch.”
Eventually unsatisfied with how the fight is going, Mrs. Ganush tears a button from Christine’s sweater and curses it, calling upon a demon called the Lamia, and promising, “Soon it will be you who comes begging to me.”
See, most movies would’ve just had her do the curse inside the bank when they dragged her off. Fortunately for us, Sam Raimi doesn’t make “most movies.”
(Also, I’d like to point out that Joel McHale’s character in SPIDER-MAN 2 got off easy when he rejected Aunt May’s request for a loan.)
As the curse haunts Christine in her daily life it manifests in some familiar Raimi imagery: wind blowing around leaves and other objects in and outdoors, lights turning off on their own, monstrous shadows and invisible forces that knock her against walls or even lift her by her ankle and swing her around the room. There’s also the new specter of a buzzing fly we first saw in the prologue and credit sequence. In one of the movie’s most inventive but simple horror gags, the fly comes in the window and lands on her face while she’s asleep. It crawls around and, disgustingly, disappears into her nostril. Then comes out the other. Then it forces its way between her lips and she wakes up coughing. Immediately after that she dreams of a more ghoulish than usual Mrs. Ganush puking a massive amount of maggots onto her face and into her open mouth. (See, the PG-13 doesn’t seemed to have held them back much, even if the unrated has an extra shot of Christine spitting it out.)
At work the next day she hears the fly buzzing inside her stomach, hallucinates Mrs. Ganush’s fingernails on Stu, flips out, then has a nose bleed that grows into projectile blood spewing from both her mouth and nose, completely covering Mr. Jacks. (Interviews on the Scream Factory special edition blu-ray mention Raimi delightedly improvising the blood gag on set.)
Christine decides to fulfill Mrs. Ganush’s prophecy and go to her begging for forgiveness. And here Raimi does his classic piling on. First, Mrs. Ganush’s granddaughter Ilenka (Bojana Novakovic, BEYOND SKYLINE, BIRDS OF PREY) answers the door and gives her a cold reception. She calls her out on lying (saying her boss wouldn’t let her give the loan) and somehow intuits her issues with eating and taunts her about it. Then she lets her into the house to see Mrs. Ganush… who is actually dead. There’s a wake for her going on right then. And right in front of Mrs. Ganush’s family and friends Christine trips and knocks the body off a table, and it falls with its mouth on top of her again, pouring green fluid all over her.
As happens in these stories, she gets help from an expert. The fortune teller Rham Jas (Dileep Rao, AVATAR, INCEPTION) figures out that the Lamia, the Black Goat, will be coming for the owner of the accursed object (the button) and there might not be a way to stop it. He says she could try a “blood offering” of a small animal, like a chicken. Of course she refuses. But after she goes home and a demonic shadow stalks her her selfishness takes over and she goes looking for her pet kitten. (The idea might come to her after seeing this poster during the stalking.)
I’ve always admired Raimi’s audacity in making this likable protagonist do something so entirely indefensible, especially so abruptly. I’m positive I wouldn’t do that, but I still relate to the character as an accurate portrayal of human weakness. Maybe when pressed we would fail in ways we wouldn’t think we would. It’s shock value but it doesn’t play as just that, because there’s something true about it. And the shock is more about our disappointment in this character’s pettiness than in showing us something gross. I think this part actually plays better in the PG-13 cut than the unrated. Not because it’s upsetting to see the stabbing motion and blood splattering from an offscreen animal, but because the rhythm of cutting straight from her calling for the cat to burying it is just funnier. You think “oh shit, is she really gonna— oh yeah, she did. She actually did it.”
Anyway, didn’t somebody say you’re supposed to save the cat to make people like your character? I wonder if Raimi got that mixed up.
(For a totally unhinged argument about whether or not the cat scene is funny, check out the comments on movie-censorship.com’s comparison between the two cuts.)
Otherwise I think the unrated is superior, especially for the more ridiculous amount of blood in the nose bleed scene.
Like Mary Jane in SPIDER-MAN, Christine has an uncomfortable meal with the boyfriend’s rich parents, trying to make them accept her. It goes from extreme awkwardness to completely winning them over, but then she starts hearing things, seeing maggots, blood and Mrs. Ganush’s glass eye in her cake. In another very simple grossout made possible by computers, she chokes and coughs and the fly flies out of her mouth for all to see. She also flips out and throws a glass, so the dinner doesn’t end up going well, in my opinion.
The most EVIL DEAD scene has got to be when she goes into her workshed to look for things to pawn and suddenly the ghost of Mrs. Ganush is there looking like a yo-she-bitch, grabbing her by the throat and impossibly punching down her throat.
There are visual homages to EVIL DEAD II and a weird cartoon touch that for some reason she has an anvil hoisted up on pulleys. She slices a rope with the blade of an ice skate and it drops right on Mrs. Ganush’s head, popping out both of her eyeballs and splattering a big wad of goo on Christine’s face.
Yes, it’s true, some of the gore here is digital. I personally prefer the look of latex, but also – come on. This shot is fucking cool, and gets some real dynamism from creating it frame by frame, making the goo go into the exact right shape, and the eye balls smack her in the best possible spots.
Those screengrabs are from the unrated version, but all they had to do for PG-13 is make it a muddy black/brown instead of a meaty red. It’s still nasty!
I also found on this viewing that though there are apparently hundreds of visual FX shots, it’s not (and doesn’t feel) entirely digital – there are plenty of prosthetics, puppets and disgusting fluid messes sprayed out of hoses onto people’s faces. Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger and KNB EFX group handled the makeup, and the visual effects supervisor/second unit director was Bruce Jones of Tippet Studio.
Anyway, Christine goes to pawn her stuff, trying to raise ten grand to hire the Lamia expert San Dena. When the guy totals up the value of her belongings she ironically says almost the same thing Mrs. Ganush said to her: “Please. This is all I have. I’m begging you.”
San Dena performs a seance, which summons all the wind and rattling objects and spinning and vibrating cameras. The camera follows sound effects and movements across the wall, so I should note that this reunited Raimi with his EVIL DEAD II cinematographer Peter Deming. Some “unsettled” ghosts stop by (I guess one of them is Sam Raimi, probly the one with the trombone) and eventually a goat starts talking – a similar sort of creepy to the cackling deer head in EVIL DEAD II, but with more sophisticated FX. When San Dena’s assistant (Kevin Foster, IRON MAN) gets possessed and starts flying around it’s just like EVIL DEAD II’s Ed, and then he dances a jig like Darkman or Ash. But none of Raimi’s other movies had a demon puking up a kitten, which this one does. Still, the highlight of the scene for me is that even while speaking to an evil spirit Christine tries to lie and pin what she did on her boss.
The last moral challenge is when Christine finds out that she might be able to escape the curse by transferring ownership of the button to some other poor bastard. She actually considers doing it, sitting at a diner eyeing the other customers, even being such an asshole that she threatens tipping her waitress with it. One funny part is when she starts walking toward an old man with an oxygen mask (Bill Paxton’s dad John), as if being near the end of his life makes it okay to send him to Hell.
But her actual plan is to give it to Stu, who kinda pulled an Eddie Brock on her, sabotaging one of her accounts to steal the promotion from her. When he pathetically cries about what he’s done she feels bad and decides not to curse him.
Finally she thinks of one weird trick – she might be able to transfer the curse back to Mrs. Ganush by making a formal gift of the accursed object. “I’ll do better than that. I’ll shove it down her god damn throat!” So the climax is Christine digging up the old lady’s grave during a rain storm. The hole fills up with water, the body floats and bobs around and the big metal cross grave marker tips over and bonks her on the head. So she has to work for it. There’s a dissolve from her covered in mud to being back at home taking a shower, much like that transition to the funeral in DARKMAN.
Many claim that they figured out the final twist ahead of time. So what? I figured out the twist of MATCHSTICK MEN in the opening scene, and it’s still a good movie. The point is, watching this poor lady go through all this, courageously face literal demons, seemingly outsmart them, and learn her lesson (it’s important to her to admit to Clay that it was her decision not to give the loan), only to realize she made one error that causes her to be violently dragged into the fiery pits of Hell, is beautiful. Smash cutting from Clay’s look of horror to the title again is a “That’ll do, pig” of a horror ending. Perfect.
In researching this review I found pieces debating whether Christine is meant to “deserve” this fate. I don’t think it’s that simple. Yes, I want her to see that what she did was wrong, and also I want her to beat this curse. In the aforementioned interview posted on Cinema.com, Raimi describes Christine uncharitably; he says she’s “a morally bankrupt character. She commits this sin of greed by throwing an old lady out of her house. And I wanted to see if I could get the audience to identify with her.” But years later, in an interview with Bloody Disgusting, he clarified, “No, I feel that the poor girl was overpunished, as it happens in life sometimes. It is a morality tale, she did do the wrong thing, but holy cow, give her a break!”
DRAG ME TO HELL was well reviewed and did pretty well at the box office – about three times its budget. But I don’t think it garners much discussion outside of this context here – the films of Sam Raimi. Maybe that’s because they never tried to make a sequel. Raimi has been asked about this in interviews and says it’s because he has no idea where the story would go from there. They already dragged her to Hell!
Sadly for us, Lohman decided to retire from movies that year to focus on raising her kids. So you generally just see her cameoing in movies by her husband Mark Neveldine. Long continues to pop up frequently, though he could probly just live off residuals from the ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS movies. I’d say the DRAG ME TO HELL veteran who has experience the most subsequent career growth has been Octavia Spencer. She had a bit part in the first SPIDER-MAN, and here she’s basically an extra, seen in the background as one of Christine’s co-workers at the bank. That same year she played a nurse who got killed at the beginning of Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN II. Two years later she got an Oscar for THE HELP.
It should go without saying that if for some horrible reason I couldn’t have both, I would take the unabated hand-crafted spookablasting of the EVIL DEADs over this slicker 21st century product. But I think DRAG ME TO HELL holds up as one of the great fun horror movies of the aughts. I like its flawed but captivating protagonist, its harsh but funny judgment of human principles, and its deep well of weird horror happenings. When I think of all the mainstream ghosty type horror of the era – James Wan’s being some of the best – I just don’t think their gags can keep up with Raimi’s here. The ominous FORREST-GUMP-feather handkerchief that gets sucked into the car grill and out the air conditioner, tries to smother Christine and then scurry down her throat and she has to play a game of tug-of-war while gagging on it. The shadows of cloven hoofs seen in the crack under the door, morphing into shadows of monstrous spindly hands that reach across the floor. The wind that punches Christine across the kitchen. The two times Christine has to unwedge her face from Mrs. Ganush’s slobbery mouth. The three times Mrs. Ganush rips out a chunk of Christine’s hair, two of them while already a corpse. And on and on.
In the blu-ray extras they say that Raimi kept coming up with new gimmicks to add as they were filming, that he was “just relentless.” And that’s why we need Raimi out there making movies, especially in this genre. Everybody else relents too damn much.
Other 2009 horror movies: BLOOD CREEK, BURNING BRIGHT, CABIN FEVER 2: SPRING FEVER, CARRIERS, CHILDREN OF THE CORN, THE COLLECTOR, THE DESCENT 2, DREAD, THE FINAL DESTINATION, THE FOURTH KIND, FRIDAY THE 13TH, GRACE, THE GRUDGE 3, HALLOWEEN II, THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT, THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (FIRST SEQUENCE), IT’S ALIVE, JENNIFER’S BODY, LAID TO REST, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, THE LOVED ONES, MACABRE, MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3D, MY SUPER PSYCHO SWEET 16, ORPHAN, PANDORUM, SAW VI, SMASH CUT, SORORITY ROW, SPLICE, SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, THIRST, THE UNBORN, UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS, VACANCY 2: THE FIRST CUT, WRONG TURN 3: LEFT FOR DEAD, ZOMBIELAND.