Just saw Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell last night and had a blast. Raimi serves generous helpings of gross-out horror without any gore — no chopped limbs or anything like that. It’s also hilarious and the most fun I’ve had in a theatre in a long time. I haven’t seen any of the Evil Dead movies so this was my introduction to Raimi’s brand of horror, but his return to the genre has definitely encouraged me to look up his originals.
The tone is consistent but hard to capture with one adjective. None of the characters act like they are in a horror comedy such as Scream — they are perfectly earnest — but the film is very much intentionally funny. The humor always comes from the situations and the fact that, from frame one, you know exactly what Alison Lohman is thinking at all times without her needing to say it.
On the basis of the plot, Drag Me to Hell is absolutely a remake of Jacques Tourneur’s 52-year-old classic Night of the Demon, from premise-establishing introduction to train-station conclusion. But Raimi’s version resists comparison at all points because it is 180-degrees different in terms of style, tone, and everything. Tourneur’s black-but-mostly-white photography of brightly lit interiors gives way to ornately detailed interiors in lurid color.
Even the method of frightening is different, exchanging psychological dread for a steady diet of jump-scares. Subtlety of either the video or audio varieties is anathema to this film but Raimi does a great job of making you truly enjoy how gratuitous it all is, in a celebration of classic horror movie gimmicks that are polished up to look their best.
Because of this approach, I expected Raimi to improve on the original’s risible depiction of the demon with recourse to superior special effects, but he goes one better by restoring Tourneur’s own desire never to reveal the demon, which had been filmed by producer Hal Chester against the director’s wishes. Though it is a wise improvement, it is strangely out of character with the rest of Raimi’s film which favors visual grotesqueries over the original’s preference for the suggestion of hidden terrors. The most obvious example is the replacement of Tourneur’s warlock played by Niall MacGinnis, a soft-spoken and friendly mannered gentleman who harmlessly entertains children as a birthday party clown, with a hideous gypsy hag who looks every bit as malevolent as she is.
One thing which struck me in particular, which I had never noticed in any of his Spider-Man movies, is how effective Raimi is with traditional filmmaking techniques. The editorial highlight of the film is a knock-out, drag-(me)-out fight in close quarters which is brilliantly constructed using pure montage to show you what’s happening instead of attempting to communicate the supposed confusion of a fight with shaky camera techniques. I think Raimi’s classical approach is actually much more faithful to the experience of an intense fight in which one’s senses are heightened and adrenaline produces a kind of clarity rather than confusion.
In terms of shot-by-shot montage I think Raimi is the peer of De Palma and the Coens, the two (I mean three) filmmakers I thought of while watching the movie. During the film I thought it was odd that I should be reminded of them, but now that I think about it, A Simple Plan is a very Coenesque morality tale so perhaps the comparison is not so off the wall.
At any rate, I think Drag Me to Hell is the first movie in 2009 I’ve wanted to see a second time. The best one-line evaluation is the last sentence of David Edelstein’s review in New York magazine: “Truly, this is manna from hell.”