Usually the problem with horror movie trailers is that they give too much away. The advertising for Drag Me to Hell (which is here but I don’t recommend watching it until after you’ve seen the movie) was particularly bad, because it both gives too much away and doesn’t tell you anything you need to know about the movie.
Except for “From the director of […] the Evil Dead trilogy.” Because Drag Me to Hell is fully, gloriously, 100% a Sam Raimi movie. You wouldn’t know from the 15-second version of the trailer, which makes it look like another bland, uninspired summer horror movie franchise or remake, with a big name tangentially attached. That’s what I’d assumed it was, until the reviews started coming in describing it as a horror comedy and pointing out how funny it was.
“Well, duh,” you may be saying, “it’s Sam Raimi.” But when was the last time one of Raimi’s movies didn’t feel like something of a compromise? There are familiar flashes of brilliance — the hospital scene with Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2, Peter Parker’s hilariously goofy “emo evil” transformation in Spider-Man 3, some terrific transition shots in the beginning of Darkman — and a few movies that are fine but feel as if they’re made by someone else, like A Simple Plan. But I’ve never gotten the sense that he’s been free to make exactly the movie that’s in his head. The movie that you can kind of sense is waiting to be made next while you’re watching Evil Dead 2.
Whether it’s actually the case or not, I don’t know, but Drag Me to Hell feels like that movie. Completely free of Hollywood interference, and also free of budgetary constraints and the limitations of early 90s make-up and CGI. The movie effortlessly jumps around from horror to action to comedy to gore to slapstick and back again, often in the same scene, and with never any sense that any part of it is suffering. These things shouldn’t work well together, but they do. It shouldn’t be possible to be scared and laughing out loud and grossed out and tense at the same time, but this movie does that over and over again. Even the Evil Dead movies don’t do it as well as this one: you never really care what happens to Ash as a character, and once a scene devolves completely into slapstick, it’s still entertaining but no longer at all tense or scary. But Drag Me to Hell is the first movie I’ve seen in a long time where I really didn’t know what was going to happen next: it establishes pretty quickly that all bets are off, and you keep thinking, Sure, I’m laughing now. But I might not be 20 seconds from now.
Spoilers follow, in case you want to go in knowing absolutely nothing about the movie:
I kept thinking it must’ve been a blast to come up with some of the sequences. The attack in the car was pure genius, and it was like hitting the top of a roller coaster’s lift hill and plunging down into the rest of the ride. But most of the scenes seemed to take the formula: what’s the worst possible thing that could happen in this situation? And now, what’s even worse than that? How do you go over “over the top?” I kept thinking I’d love to see how Raimi would’ve handled the recent CBS sitcom “Worst Week,” since several scenes felt like they started with the same premise but were then given the freedom to go completely off the rails.
The other (more pretentious) observation is that I get a real sense Sam Raimi doesn’t think in terms of genres, but just “pure movie.” Like how they say you’re never truly fluent in a foreign language until you’re no longer translating back and forth into your native language. Because showing a woman having to meet her boyfriend’s uptight and disapproving parents has the same tension as showing a woman being stalked by an evil home-invading spirit. And ending a scene with an old woman vomiting maggots isn’t really all that different from delivering the punchline to a joke. I can imagine any number of “dark” comedians writing a scene where an outsider accidentally knocks over the coffin at a wake, but it takes real genius to realize the natural conclusion of that slapstick: having the corpse fall out and vomit embalming fluid directly into someone’s mouth. When you’ve seen so many scenes that artfully and gleefully jump across boundaries, you just take it in stride when the whole thing briefly turns into a ghost story, complete with CG evil goat speaking in a human voice. And there’s no sense of Are other people going to get this? You can’t not get it.
And major spoiler territory, in case you’ve made it this far:
I thought all the obtrusive Apple product placement was hilarious, and I spent much of the movie expecting them to give the button to John Hodgman. I did predict the “obvious” ending to the movie (giving the button to evil bank guy) as soon as they mentioned that you could give it away. I’m glad they acknowledged that but didn’t stick with it, as satisfying as it would’ve been. Because the story as it is kept it in the realm of classic urban legends-style horror: a sequence of really horrible things happening to a basically good person. We like to think that we all prefer stories where everybody ends up getting the outcome they deserve, but the genuinely memorable and haunting horror stories are the ones that leave you thinking, “That could so easily have been me, but thank God it wasn’t.” And of course, they slam the last title card at you immediately to remind you not to take it too seriously: it’s just a fun horror movie.