‘Drag Me to Hell’: Sam Raimi’s Genre Curse

Drag Me to Hell: Sam Raimis Genre Curse

If there’s one film magazine connected with the Cannes festival, it’d probably be Positif or Cahiers du Cinema, French journals whose passionate seriousness perfectly suits the movies that usually show here. This year, though, the festival’s journal of record should be the American horror-movie mag Fangoria.

The official Cannes selection has included all manner of genre films: a sexy vampire shocker , a guns-n-guts crime film and two gory psycho-thrillers about devoted mothers gone bad . Also, to stretch the point just a little, we’ve had three movies, in radically different tones about the stages of necrophilia — people coping not with the death of a loved one but with the love of a dead one. And this is only the eighth day of the 12-day bash.

Now comes Drag Me to Hell — a great genre title if there ever was one — from Sam Raimi, who made zillions with his Spider-Man movies but is revered by horrorphiliacs for another trilogy, his cheapo-creepo Evil Dead movies. Taking a break from A-movie budgets, subjects and actors, Raimi and his brother Ivan concocted a script about the effects of a gypsy curse on a basically nice person who does One Bad Thing.

Christine is a friendly, efficient, twentysomething career gal with a caring, slightly pompous boyfriend who just got a job as a professor but whose real function in the film is to scoff at the existence of the satanic forces pestering Christine, and to be absent or ignorant whenever bad stuff happens. As the loan officer in an L.A. bank, she has to consider a nutsy crone’s request for an extension on a home loan. The old lady, a Mrs. Ganush , doesn’t have much collateral: a glass eye, false teeth that keep slipping out and enough phlegm to fill the Rose Bowl. Reluctantly, and to help her secure a promotion, Christine turns down the loan. Apparently Christine doesn’t realize she’s in a horror film, where the first law is to avoid pissing off a crazy lady with a wandering eye.

That evening after work, in a parking garage that of course has not another soul passing through it for minutes on end, our heroine is attacked by the old lady. At the end of the kind of combat scene Mickey Rourke didn’t have to endure in The Wrestler, Mrs. G. snatches a button off Christine’s coat and hands it back, with the promise that she’ll be hearing from the Lamia. A storefront psychic adviser explains that the Lamia is a demon who toys sadistically with his victims for three days, then pretty much drags them down to Hell. Thus is the logic of horror movies.

It’s a doctrine that Raimi devoutly observes, he being as old-fashioned a scare-maker as the Lady Ganush is an intoner of maledictions. This is the sort of film where the wind portentously rustles leaves only Christine can see moving; where pots and pans rattle on their own; where every door creaks and violins go tremulous in a John Cagean symphony of noises; where nosebleeds reach Niagara volume; where the shadow of a hornèd, cloven-hoofed creature proceeds up the stairs toward the heroine’s bedroom; where a fly crawls in one nostril and out the other of a sleeping Christine, then into her mouth; and where, to get rid of a curse, you must dig up a grave and pin the button on a crazy person who’s dead — but not that dead.

After a while, Raimi’s attentiveness to genre formula becomes almost reassuring. You know This Awful Thing is next on the agenda. But I’m obliged to confess that, when the first image of the demon flashed on screen, I got a jolt to my nervous system that was more than a seismic shiver — it felt exactly like a deep electric shock. Kudos also to the Raimis for saving their one plot twist to the end, so that people leave the movie wondering who the hero-victim will be in the all-but-inevitable Drag Me to Hell 2.

So, genre fans, check this one out when it opens in the U.S. on May 29. And to all bank officers with billions in stimulus handouts to play with, and millions of begging customers: Don’t say no. Don’t you dare say no.
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