Scream queens are hired to stand in for the audience, to absorb dread and give us someone – anyone! – with whom we can sympathize. But even with this said, Alison Lohman, the star of “Drag Me to Hell,” looks positively freaked out from Minute One forward, long before darkness falls upon her character’s soul. With her face frequently in closeup, Lohman’s Christine Brown appears beyond paranoia, embodying dread for a universe that’s pitted against her. Her face, which would be cuddly-cute in just about any other film, seems to mask a depression that is rotting her from the inside.
However this performance came to be, Sam Raimi sure gets what he needs in his much anticipated return to the horror-comedy, the genre that incubated this now versatile craftsman. Christine’s turmoil notwithstanding, every inch of Raimi’s film teems with devious fun, appropriate since this is the filmmaker’s break from more “serious” – and I’d argue, more forgettable – projects. With brother Ivan as his co-writer, Sam tosses out a delightful batch of tense, hilarious set pieces. The two are giggling behind the proceeds like the Coen brothers scripting fresh off a critical triumph. Raimi’s genre list is extensive: Westerns (“Quick and the Dead”), the Crime Film (“Simple Plan”), even the sappy Sports Pic (“For the Love of the Game”) – overall, less cursed than not, thankfully. But don’t forget – it all began with a curse.
“The Evil Dead” was a starter job – a convenient premise in an audience-ready genre. After all, Raimi swears he was hardly a horror film buff, and had stumbled upon the idea for “Dead” when pondering the trees of Birnam approaching Dunsinane in “Macbeth,” a work more to his taste. Like “Night of the Living Dead” premise, which came about as the most economical one George Romero and crew could think up, Raimi conceived a wandering curse, borne from an ancient text but quite the inhabitant in any young host out for a good time in the woods. Thus, the tale could be free in form and flexible for narrative development. It made for an open experimental grounds for the filmmakers.
In the years since, Raimi proved he could work in tighter narrative forms. The most notable example is “A Simple Plan,” a revision of the “dishonor among thieves” motif that proves to be one of the most effective crime dramas ever to come to life. The (likely) committee-scripted “Spiderman” films show incessant casual narration, through which Raimi works like a masterful architect hired on to scratch out some big, ugly towers. Resistance and rebellion to the studio routine resounds throughout “Drag Me,” and as a return to the filmmaker’s original witty shocks and gross-outs, how goddamn touching it is.
In the defense of droopy faced Christine, her life is in shambles from the start. Her job as a loan officer at a bank seems at a standstill, since she can’t quite convince her boss (that-guy David Paymer) to grant her the assistant manager position. In her personal life, she has something great with newly hired psychology prof Clay (Justin Long playing straight-faced), yet his family’s acceptance of her farmgirl roots is another story. The Raimi script throws harsh fate at her when a one-eyed “gypsy” (Lorna Raver), who’s mortgage is about to foreclose, zaps her with a curse as sure as Stephen King can gear up a Second Act. The previously supplicating old hag throws more than enough burden upon Christine – the curse is like a true insult upon injury.
But do you really think that Raimi is out to make a somber “Thinner”? Come on now, folks! It takes no longer than Christine’s trip to her car in a parking garage for the hoot-worthy shocks to begin. The “gypsy” hag materializes for an outright attack, and let’s just say that the comic potential of her prosthetics are not lost upon the writer-director. After a routine beginning – rote character development a la decades of the horror tradition (a backstory prologue is hardly memorable by passable) – “Drag Me” pays off rather fast and in a large helping, in spite of its PG-13 rating. And we’re tipped off that Christine will face the haunt in multiple forms.
Raimi’s not too proud to grab at some cliché devices. Christine visits a fortune teller (a delightful Dileep Rao) who confirms she’s now in a world of s**t – he’s a cheeky turn on the doom-laden archetypal character. And for sure, Christine meets it manifesting as a Reaper, a kitchen with utensil-rattling resounding in her bones, and a freakish scarf that just won’t go away. Will this doomed young animal lover sacrifice her kitty to try to stop it? Raimi winks a yes. Has the “aww-ing” audience asked for it? You bet your a*s we have.
The pattern of shock-and-shock-again is set early, and surely risks becoming routine. Though Raimi keeps things clever and even throws out one shock before a fair warning, perhaps what the “Saw”-whetted audiences need these days. His bravest move comes in his outright tribute to his own “Evil Dead.” Would you guys think you’d see the possessed hanging in midair and, even moreso Raimi, throating a witch’s cackle? Would you think something so early-80s would work today? The proof is right here in Raimi’s latest.
But we can’t ignore the filmmaker’s debt to his leading player. As that benighted beauty, Alison Lohman plays her part straight and hard, never once cracking under the trickily toned narrative. I wonder if Raimi whispered to her “You’re f****d!” throughout preproduction, and the actor, knowing what she’d gotten herself into, agreed and embodied the role in full. She looks dark humor straight in the face and absorbs the darkness to let Raimi brushstroke the humor upon it.
When times are tough, let the masters lead the way – so true when considering the state of American horror after watching this triumphant film. It’s no surprise that the only other recent bright entries in domestic darkness have come from horror-comedy vets Stuart Gordon (“Stuck”) and Frank Henenlotter (“Bad Biology”), both films painfully unseen. In “Drag Me” as well, a sure hand revives horror by looking back to tradition. In this genre, perhaps we should consider where we have been before newbies blindly, sadistically thrust themselves forward into muck and darkness.