by James Hansen
Short on surprises, gags, and inspiration, Drag Me To Hell is shockingly half-hearted and surprisingly stale for the majority of its running time. How, oh how, does a movie that takes utter glee in multiple, if overly repetitive, shock gags seem so mundane? Although fault lies in many places (the vapid screenplay by Sam & Ivan Raimi, uninspired, lifeless performances by Alison Lohman and especially Justin Long, painfully lazy direction outside of the horror sequences), the main problem is that in nearly every facet of production Drag Me To Hell just isn’t committed to its own eccentricities and wild nature.
A long, flat opening is used to introduce Christine (Alison Lohman), a loan officer from a small farm town who is fighting her way towards a promotion, and her boyfriend Clay (Justin Long), an upper class university professor whose mother, in an alarmingly hackneyed phone call, which (of course) is taken on speaker phone, disapproves of the farm girl. Things finally get going when Christine returns to work after said phone call where she is met by Mrs. Ganush, an old gypsy who begs for a third extension on her mortgage. Christine, battling for an assistant manager position with an aggressively smarmy new guy named Stu, decides to do what is best for the bank and deny the gypsy. Whoopsie. Christine leaves work and is promptly attacked in her car by Mrs. Ganush who calls upon the curse of the Lamia – a dreaded curse established in the film’s prelude in which invisible creatures torture the victim for three days before (whadda ya know!) dragging them to hell.
Solid as the crazy curse premise may be, there isn’t enough energy to sustain Drag Me To Hell through its own skeletal plot. Slightly reminiscent of the stylistic buzzkill the longest Are You Afraid Of The Dark? episode ever put on film – James Wan’s Dead Silence – Drag Me To Hell’s sensitive sound design gives away the frights before they even happen. Moreover, the should-be fun scenes where spirits drive Christine to madness quickly lose their charm by becoming so re-dundant. This is really a shame because, despite the insistence on fluids spurting from the mouth in every scene (there’s something I never thought I’d complain about), Raimi and Co. have clearly put ten times the thought into the horror sequences than the rest of the film. Whether it’s the battle with Mrs. Ganush in the car, the numerous scenes where Christine is flailed around different rooms, apartments, and houses like a rag doll, a dining room scene with a clear nod to Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, or the finale where the stars have aligned to banish the Lamia (a certain moment with a certain goat is without a doubt the only truly inspired moment in the entire film), Raimi may “return to form” but only sporadically. The quick editing around the gross-out moments, likely done to keep the film at PG-13, keep even the best scenes from being totally successful. Even as an audience member in my screening shouted “This movie is fuckin’ sick!”, all I could think was “Not sick enough.”
What’s most disappointing, especially considering it as Raimi’s return to campy horror, is that the production of Drag Me To Hell seems to have forgotten how the best horror works, campy or not. Although I did think “not sick enough,” that has less to do with specific scenes than with the whole product. Certainly, there is enough vomit, blood, and general craziness for plenty of people to flip their shit, as it were. But, unlike the best horror, Drag Me To Hell, perhaps signified by the egregious phone call from mother, feels totally phoned in. The performances, save Lohman in the last 20 minutes, are on autopilot, as is the majority of Raimi’s direction. What makes the holy trinity of purposefully campy horror (Evil Dead, Dead Alive, and Cabin Fever) so great is that each vaguely nuanced performance and every overblown effect is sold on the film – whether it’s burning a Book of the Dead, running a lawnmower over hundreds of zombies, or a kid doing karate in front of an old country store screaming “Pancakes!” Much as I hoped for (hell, expected) that kind of investment from Drag Me To Hell, all I got was a mostly lifeless, half-hearted venture. Drag Me To Hell isn’t dead exactly…it’s just sort of rotting.