For me the perfect horror films are those that are unafraid to use terror and humour in equal doses. In fact it’s usually the case that if I’m watching a horror film, it’s with a group of friends after a few beers when we’ve wound ourselves up enough to put on a new scare-fest.
So whilst I can definitely appreciate horrors that maintain a deathly serious tone throughout, what I’m really after is a great story that can deliver genuine chills, but is also happy to go self-aware or tongue-in-cheek. I suppose that’s why The Evil Dead trilogy is so high on my all time favourite film list.
And that also explains my love for Drag me to Hell; the film that saw Sam Raimi finally return to the genre that made him a geek household name.
As with Raimi’s first foray into horror, Drag me to Hell is built on a simple premise; after refusing to allow an old gypsy woman an extension on her mortgage, bank loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) finds herself under a curse which will see her tormented by a goat demon called the Lamia for several days before, as the title suggests, being pulled into the fires of satan. Christine and her boyfriend Clay must battle the demon, the curse and Mrs Ganush (the gypsy) to save Christine’s soul and lift the hex.
Just as the Evil Dead’s simple set-up is elevated by the determination of a young filmmaker with something to prove, so is Drag me to Hell’s story given sheer brilliance by the execution of a seasoned auteur flexing all his cinematic muscles. Raimi knows how to pull off all his tricks, and he knows how to have fun; as is particularly evident during a botched seance in which a man, a soothsayer and even a goat are possessed by a marauding demon hell bent on breaking through the fabric of reality. Here Raimi is able to seamlessly mash up comedy and shocks so that the audience are laughing and gasping disturbed intakes of oxygen at the same time.
The slapstick nods to the Three Stooges are there as the valet tries to behead the possessed goat only to be alluded and then bitten. This is quickly followed by the now possessed valet dancing a ridiculous jig whilst hovering above a ball of flames. Suddenly the tone takes a terrifying shift as the mystic Rham Jas (Dileep Rao) barks religion tinged commands at the demon to expel it from the room. But again the tone shifts as the Lamia tells Christine (in that signature Raimi dual voiced demonic drawl) that the cat she had earlier sacrificed to appease him was not what he wanted, leading him to puke it up in front of her. All of these things are awkwardly juxtaposed to bring a chorus of laughs, wretches and oh-my-gods from the audience. And in horror terms that is pure genius.
Throughout the bullet train paced 95 minute movie there are many examples of this unique style. In an early scene that has Christine stalked by Mrs Ganush in an underground car park, the initial feeling is one of classic terror. Christine rushes through the darkness after spotting Mrs Ganush’s car (a cameo for Raimi’s own Oldsmobile which has featured in every film he has ever made) – the music and sound dropping out of the edit to warn us of an oncoming horror. And as she for a moment thinks herself safe, a revealing camera pan shows us that the milky eyed gypsy is in fact sat behind her on the car’s back seat. Yet instead of simply settling for an easy jump scare, as would your run of the mill horror, Raimi defies convention and has Christine and Mrs Ganush have a brutal fist fight that sees an office stapler become a wince inducing weapon, trained on the eye of the mystical old woman. Again the slapstick homage is prevalent and the frantic brawl comes to a climax with Christine stamping on the gas and smashing the car into a nearby 4×4, which knocks Ganush’s head against the dash and smacks the dentures out of her mouth. Now toothless she does the only logical thing and starts gumming Christine’s chin until she is finally drop-kicked out of the car. You find yourself laughing, though you know you really shouldn’t, and it is great!
This is a film that contains all of the above and so much more, including vomiting worms, a flying eyeball, projectile nosebleeds, feline sacrifice, possessed mobile phones and a flooded grave with a floating dead body who still manages to pull people’s hair!
For me Drag me to Hell was a true return to form for Raimi. The horror genre is pining for more writer/directors like him. And whilst I am a huge fan of his other work (and in particular his iconic deconstruction of the superhero genre with Darkman, and subsequent rebuilding with Spiderman 1 and 2) I do wish he would make a full time return to scaring people.
Drag me to Hell is pure unabashed fun, and yet it is also a fantastically scary dose of horror. That makes it the perfect film to share with friends at halloween or any other time of year: My perfect horror film!