It's always a worry when a once legendary director returns to the genre that made their name. Far too often the results disappoint and drag the reputations of these once-great giants of horror through countless muddy puddles. Fans feel short changed, and the unconverted mockingly yell "told you he was crap" from the sidelines. Boo hiss.
So I was understandably nervous about Raimi's "return to horror". The Evil Dead was one of the most important discoveries of my cinematic life, and I'm sure I'm not alone there. Along with Alex Cox's Moviedrome series, the film totally altered my taste in movies and gave me an appetite for the unusual, the cultish and the downright nasty that continues to this day. I was concerned, as Drag Me To Hell started, that Raimi's success in the mainstream would have dented his ability to make the sort of edgy "experience in gruelling horror" that we all know and love, and that the movie would be filled with diluted multiplex-friendly scares for beginners. How wrong I was.
Raimi puts the boot in within the first five minutes of the film, knocking you off your feet and raining down a flurry of blows that refuse to let you get up again. Drag Me To Hell is absolutely terrifying. Before your bum has even had time to introduce itself to your seat, Raimi kicks the doors open with the first of numerous jolting shocks that threaten your heart and shred your nerves. Proving timing is everything , each shock leaps out at you at the moment just before you expect it. Popcorn is spilled everywhere and many pairs of pants become strangely brown. It's a mean trick that Raimi plays on the audience time and time again, and it rarely becomes predictable. But this isn't a cheap movie, going for the easy scares. Any fears over an overreliance on jumpy frights are totally laid to rest by Raimi's masterful handling of the build up of tension and creepy chills.
Drag Me To Hell is, in essence, a series of magnificent set-pieces. By pulling the rug out from under the audience at the start of the film, we realise all bets are off. Raimi carefully builds atmosphere through each scene, letting you know something terrible is coming, before letting all hell break loose at full volume. Long periods of quiet are suddenly shattered by thunderous crashes and ear-piercing shrieks designed to oppress and disorientate the viewer. It works and, coupled with Raimi's refusal to let the viewer find their feet before piling more shocks and scares on, produces some absolutely breathtaking sequences. I know it's an overused review cliché, but all those comparisons to a rollercoaster ride are totally apt in this case. The cumulative effect of the deafening sound and relentless action is utter terror. I honestly don't think I've been this scared in a cinema, ever.
Raimi hangs the chills upon a simple but effective story designed to give the scares the space they need to shine. Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is a young loan officer who makes a really bad move when she chooses to help her career rather than a desperate gypsy woman. Quickly, insult is added to injury and Christine finds herself cursed and pursued by a demonic Lamia intent on munching happily on her soul. With three days to sort the mess out, Christine desperately tries to redeem herself, but every good intention ends up digging her deeper towards hell.
It's a nightmarish scenario, added to by the ferocity of the supernatural forces she's up against. The Lamia is a deliciously chilling creation, its shadowy form creeping insidiously across walls before manifesting like the Goat Of Mendez. Right from the start we're all too aware of the enormous power this beast wields as it rips doors open and tosses people around as if they were stuffed toys. You know there's nowhere to hide from this creature and get the sense that, for all the destruction and abuse it leaves in its wake, it's just playing with its victims until it can drag them to the pit. It's a seriously nasty creation and its early silhouetted appearances are some of the creepiest moments in the movie.
Raimi clearly takes great delight in scaring the audience, but knows when to pull back. As with much of his previous work, there's a mischievously dark sense of humour at work here. Scenes turn from scary to shocking to funny and back again with an ease that belies the careful construction at work here. Desperate fights for survival suddenly become like something from Itchy And Scratchy as a stapler becomes an improvised weapon, or as false teeth are knocked out and the attacker is forced to gum her victim. Go with the flow and you'll find yourself screaming and laughing with the same breath.
There are flaws. Some poor CGI dilutes the power of a few scenes, and anyone who says they didn't see the ending coming is lying, but these are minor waves in an ocean of goodness. It's not as original or groundbreaking, or gory, as Evil Dead was, but then it doesn't try to be. Drag Me To Hell is a love letter to horror cinema, a homage to classics such as Tourneur's Night Of The Demon made the way that only the director of The Evil Dead can. It's as if Raimi is yelling "Come on! This is how you do it!" to those filmmakers intent on tarnishing their reputation, setting a high bar for them to reach.
This is a hugely enjoyable film and you owe it to yourself to catch it on the biggest, loudest screen you can see it on. Don't wait for the DVD - half the power is in the oppressive levels of noise and spectacle that only a cinema can produce. Don't take anyone who hates jumpy movies, as they'll never speak to you again. But above all, don't miss out. As I left the cinema after watching Drag Me To Hell, I realised I was grinning from ear to ear, breathless and exhilarated. I can't think of any higher praise for a film.
Review by Paul Bird
Sam Raimi's Drag Me To Hell will be unleashed in UK cinemas across the UK from the 27th of May
|Released by Lionsgate/Ghost House Pictures|