I was fortunate to attend a special preview screening of Drag Me To Hell, presented by FrightFest at the ICA, with director Sam Raimi and stars Alison Lohman and Justin Long in attendence for a Q+A session afterwards.
While Drag Me To Hell is a homecoming of sorts for Sam Raimi to the horror genre, that is not to say he had given up on 'terror pictures' altogether. Through his production company Ghost House Pictures, he's released a bunch of fright flicks, from the remake of The Grudge to 30 Days of Night, with varying degrees of success. As director though, there were clearly hints of his earlier work in the Doc Ock operating theatre scene in Spider-Man 2, but a full-blown Raimi horrorfest was not forthcoming while the webslinger was top priority. Having finally broken free of the money-spinning web-spinner, if only for a brief moment, it was time to get back to the genre that made his name, calling the shots on a self-penned script (with brother Ivan) originated circa Darkman. And not only does Drag Me To Hell mark the return of one of horror's favourite sons, but the return of horror as just purely enjoyable entertainment.
When bank clerk Christine Brown (Lohman) turns down an extension on a home loan for Mrs. Ganush (an incredible Lorna Raver) in hope it will get her a promotion, she is confonted by the elderly lady and a curse is placed upon her: in three days time, she is going to hell. Tormented by demonic forces, she enlists the help of spiritualists and her cynical boyfriend (Long) to try and break the spell before its too late. Not an exactly original premise, and one that seems archaic in contemporary horror cinema, but with Raimi in charge it makes for exceptional entertainment.
First things first, this isn't scary. There are plenty of jolts and jumps, and the central conceit of being literally dragged to hell isn't exactly a pleasant one, but this is horror as thrill-ride. The screams are as much those of laughter as they are of fear. In fact, Drag Me To Hell may be one of the funniest films of the year. There are moments of pure hysteria on screen the likes of which haven't been seen since Braindead (not that this is anywhere near as gory, but two scenes in particular, one involving a dead body and another a Meet the Parents-esque dinner date, owe something to Peter Jackson's masterpiece), with lots of gross-out gags and splat-stick. Although some yuks don't work as well as others (thanks to a couple of CG mis-fires, though this is largely, and thankfully, a practical effects showcase), Raimi's gift of the funny remains in the film's dark sense of humour, with the lengths Christine will go to save her soul, and some zingy dialogue.
But what really makes the film such a joy is just how much of a spiritual successor to the Evil Dead films it feels while remaining totally accessible to those introduced to Raimi through Spider-Man. References abound, but not in such a rib-diggingly obvious way that generate groans nor do they confuse or befuddle non-seasoned viewers. Certainly, the seance sequence is practically Evil Dead II taken out of the cabin and into a grand hall, Mrs. Ganush herself is every bit a malevolent she-bitch, and the classic Oldsmobile makes its customary return, but the little touches, be they intentional or just wired into Raimi's film-making blood, speak volumes to fans. While Raimi's trademark twirly camera tricks are not as wild or as prevalent as in the past, the content remains undeniably his work. Even the poster is reminiscient of the original poster for The Evil Dead.
Some may decry Drag Me To Hell as a little goofy and it's not exactly going to give you any nightmares, but it was simply one of the most enjoyable moviegoing experiences I've had. Just as Star Trek reminded everyone that sci-fi blockbusters didn't need to be plodding operas drained of all character (ahem, Star Wars prequels), so too does Drag Me To Hell remind you that horror needn't always be gritty, torture-filled and excessively gory. Instead, they can simply be a hell of a lot of fun.