Sam Raimi returns to his horror roots 

A Hellish Return

Drag Me to Hell
Starring Alison Lohman and Justin Long
Directed by Sam Raimi
Rated PG-13

The opening sequence of this hard-to-pin-down horror/sort-of comedy features a young boy who's been afflicted with a gypsy curse getting actually dragged to hell by soul-lusting demons, presumably to suffer for all eternity for a very minor crime. Business is meant here. There's no fooling around.

This is so we know what's in store for director Sam Raimi's heroine, mild-mannered bank loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), now that she has been damned by the same curse. Literally damned, it would appear.

I've been a fan of Raimi's forever, since long before he shot to fame with his big-budget Spider-Man flicks. From the goofy perfection of 1987's Evil Dead II, to 1990's Darkman, which presaged the new seriousness with which comic-book movie are approached, to 1998's A Simple Plan, a grown-up dramatic thriller that may well be one of the best movies ever made, Raimi has proved himself to be a fan's filmmaker. Whether he's being silly or serious, he makes movies imbued with such a deep love of movies that a big ol' film geek like myself cannot help but adore him.

I admit that immediately after I saw Drag Me to Hell I succumbed to doubt. I wondered if Hell wasn't "Sam Raimi" enough. What I mean is, Raimi has always been over-the-top gonzo or deeply earnest and solemn and honest, and I had been expecting Hell to be either one or the other. And when I saw that Hell is somewhere in the middle, I was flummoxed.

But now that I've had time to think about it, I plead for Raimi's forgiveness. I did not see at first how he is challenging the typical ethics of the modern horror story. (He wrote the script with his brother, Ivan.) The longer I have to think about Hell, the more it haunts me, and now I suspect that not only is Raimi daring to push the mainstream studio horror movie to a new and uncomfortable place, he may even be daring his longtime fans to come along with him.

My great fear is that while Raimi's longtime fans may be pleased, Drag Me to Hell may be too subtle for mainstream audiences, who appear to demand torture porn and more overt moralism than this sly story can offer.

Is there a sweeter, nicer name imaginable for a nice American girl than Christine Brown? Is there a sweeter, nicer face that could have been attached to Christine Brown than Lohman's? Could more angry-making bullshit be piled on her? Her boss at the bank (David Paymer) treats her like his own personal assistant and then degrades her for not being as hard and as cold as her profession calls for. She's got a sweet, honest, kind, understanding boyfriend in Clay Dalton (Justin Long). It's almost like Raimi is setting up Christine as the absolutely perfect victim, one who could not possibly deserve the literally hellish treatment she will be subjected to. As if our pity for her could not possible be questioned.

But then Raimi begins to suggest, in lots of crafty ways, that Christine is perhaps not quite so sweet as she seems. After she maltreats a desperate customer and has that gypsy curse laid upon her, there comes a sequence — an attack in her car — that everyone will be talking about as the grandly outrageous highlight of the film.

But Raimi is really wily in the way that he hints that Christine might not, in fact, warrant our pity. We're used to horror movies in which random characters are punished for genuinely minor infractions — engaging in premarital sex is a typical "offense," and indicative of a tediously conventional morality. Christine is clearly quite happily conjugal with supernice Clay, but that's not why she's punished here. She's punished for far more humanistic reasons: for her selfishness, for her lack of compassion.

The more I think about Drag Me to Hell, the more I wonder whether Christine doesn't deserve to be cursed. Maybe she deserves the torment she suffers. I don't know that that's something a horror movie has ever asked us to consider before.


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