To say that Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell is one of the most anticipated films of the summer would not be an understatement– Raimi has a loyal army of hardcore fans who have stuck with him from his Evil Dead days all the way up to Spider-Man 3. When he announced he would be returning to the genre in which he established himself, even fans put off by his big-studio successes started to get excited. It’s only natural that hopes were high for Drag Me to Hell, considering it’s Raimi’s first straight horror film in over 15 years. Perhaps, then, it’s only natural that the final product is such a disappointment.
Alison Lohman stars as Christine Brown, a former farm girl and a loan officer at a bank where an Assistant Manager position has recently opened. She wants the job for various reasons, not least to help prove herself to her boyfriend Clay’s (Justin Long) difficult mother. When her boss Mr. Jacks (David Paymer) hints that recent hire Stu (Reggie Lee) is up for the promotion because he can make “tough decisions,” Alison decides to take action. This happens at the worst possible time: Christine is approached by Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) about getting an extension on her home loan. Mrs. Ganush has had two extensions already, and Christine makes the “tough decision” to refuse her request. After causing a scene in the bank and attacking Christine, Mrs. Ganush puts a curse on her. Christine has three days to figure out how to stop the demon Lamia from claiming her soul forever.
The first problem with the film is that the story is, frankly, not that interesting. Christine is smart, sweet, and cute, but she’s not really a compelling central character. Lohman does an admirable job of soldiering through Raimi’s physically demanding punishments– she gets more gross junk poured into her mouth in this movie than many actresses have to deal with in their entire career– but Christine never feels like much more than a punching bag for the ongoing demonic hijinks. The rest of the cast is pretty much left on their own to hang around and react to whatever weird stuff is going on at the time, although Dileep Rao brings unexpected gravity to his character of Ram Jas, a psychic who gets mixed up in Christine’s predicament.
Raimi’s early horror films were so successful, in part, due to great practical effects and (no getting around it) Bruce Campbell’s terrific slapstick sensibilities. Here, Raimi mixes practical effects with CG, but it’s a mistake. The practical effects, which are mostly fantastic and disgusting, only serve to underscore how weak the CG is in comparison. There’s only one real “Looney Tunes” moment in the entire movie, and it’s ruined by an awful CG punchline. This points out another problem: the film, for the most part, takes itself far too seriously for something that’s supposed to be goofy fun. There are a few laughs, but most of the time when a scene goes for a gross-out joke it feels forced, like Raimi felt obligated to throw more stuff in Alison Lohman’s mouth in the hopes of getting a reaction.
I think the real audience for Drag Me to Hell is budding horror fans. The film’s (surprising) PG-13 rating makes it easy for younger audiences to get in, and if I was a kid who had never seen the Evil Dead movies, Drag Me to Hell would probably blow my mind. It’s a great “gateway movie” for anyone interested in Sam Raimi’s non-comic-book-related films, and seen with a big audience it’s probably a blast (literally– you might want to wear hearing protection). On its own, though, Drag Me to Hell seems less like a return to the Raimi’s horror roots than a somewhat anticlimactic victory lap from a director who has honestly worked his way up from humble beginnings to a hugely successful mainstream career.