*Drag Me to Hell (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
The title of director Sam Raimi's return to his low-budget roots, Drag Me to Hell, is not a metaphor. There's no fooling around here. The opening sequence of this hard-to-pin-down horror sort-of-comedy features a boy who's afflicted with a gypsy curse actually being dragged to hell by soul-lusting demons, presumably to suffer eternally for a minor crime. This is so we know what's in store later for Raimi's heroine, mild-mannered bank loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman).
I've been a fan of Raimi long before he shot to fame with his Spider-Man flicks. From the goofy perfection of 1987's Evil Dead II to 1990's more serious Darkman to 1998's dramatic thriller A Simple Plan, Raimi has proven himself to be a film-lover's filmmaker. Whether he's silly or serious, he makes movies imbued with a deep love of cinema that geeks cannot resist.
I admit that after I saw Drag Me to Hell, however, I succumbed to doubt. Raimi's films have always been either over-the-top or deeply earnest and honest. I had been expecting Hell to be one or the other, and when it fell in the middle, I was flummoxed.
Now I plead for Raimi's forgiveness. I did not see, at first, how he and his brother/co-writer Ivan are challenging the modern horror story. The longer I think about Hell, the more it haunts me, and now I suspect that not only is Raimi daring to push mainstream horror to a new and uncomfortable place, he may be daring longtime fans to come with him.
My fear is that while fans may be pleased, Drag Me to Hell may be too subtle for mainstream audiences, who seem to demand torture porn and more overt moralism than this sly story offers.
It's like this. Christine Brown: Is there a sweeter name for a nice American girl? Is there a sweeter face that could have been attached to her than Lohman's? Could she have a sweeter boyfriend than Clay Dalton (Justin Long)? And, could more crap possibly be piled on her? Her boss (David Paymer) treats her like his very own personal assistant and then degrades her for not being hardened enough for management's tastes. It seems Raimi is setting up Christine as the perfect victim.
But then there's this: Though only intermittently displaying the gonzo visual style that brought him fame, Raimi's film begins to suggest, in lots of crafty ways, that Christine is perhaps not quite as sweet as she seems. After she maltreats a desperate customer and has the gypsy curse laid upon her, there comes an outrageous sequence — involving an attack in her car — that will have everyone talking.
But what's more wily is how Raimi hints that Christine might not warrant our pity. (Lohman's performance deserves some credit here, too.) We're used to horror movies in which random characters are punished for minor infractions — engaging in premarital sex, for instance. Christine is clearly happily conjugal with Clay, but that's not why she's punished. She's punished for far more simple reasons: for her selfishness, for her lack of compassion.
Wilier still, the more I think about Drag Me to Hell, the more Raimi has me wondering whether Christine doesn't deserve to suffer. And I don't know that that's something a horror movie has ever asked us to consider before.