Allow me, if you will, to gush about a certain Sam Raimi horror film. No, not The Evil Dead, but instead his 2009 masterpiece, Drag Me to Hell. In a world where horror is defined by slashers and demons, Sam Raimi dares to create a combination of gothic horror and gory violence, much like The Evil Dead. However, Drag Me To Hell is noteworthy for how it takes down the horror genre in the most subtle and devious way possible.
Go watch any mainstream horror film from the last few years – they are all super-serious, creepy films about either dark spirits possessing regular people, or mysterious happenings in a particular house or to a specific family. Many of them utilize the “found-footage” archetype of cinema, some make it straightforward narrative. Most use shock horror and grotesque and scary special effects in their big revelations. Drag Me To Hell dares to be different, and defies this idea through some very careful storytelling. Firstly, while it is about dark spirits chasing after someone, it never really gets them exactly like other films would – in other horrors, the spirit would inhabit a normal person and have them go insane with a deeply autotuned voice and black eyes and make that the focal point of the film. Yes, that does happen in Drag Me To Hell, but it doesn’t really happen until the last few minutes. Secondly, it feels like a gothic horror, something that Vincent Price would star in if he was still around. While most horrors do try and use the looming, suspensful technique, Drag Me to Hell actually succeeds, because what is looming over our heads isn’t actually seen – the dark spirit chasing Alison Lohman in this film never shows itself in its true form, and that is remarkable, considering how easy it would have been for Raimi to throw a couple of million into creating this grotesque, terrifying monster. No, what we can’t see scares us even more. Therefore a simple shadow of the Lamia’s horns, with its hoofs behind the door and claws reaching under the door to grab your soul, is perfectly apt at giving us nightmares. Also, the police never show up to investigate the strange goings-on in the house, you know because the police are actually busy catching criminals, and don’t have time for ghosts and that nonsense.
We are in the 21st century – elaborate special effects are cheaper than hiring many actors. So it goes without saying that these effects capabilities, along with the genre of horror, should go hand in hand, and they do. There have been many recent horror films that use effects to create realistic and terrifying moments. But Raimi does the opposite – he creates some incredibly gory and campy effects, many of them not computer-generated. Why would he do that though? Because such a method is a lot scarier, and a lot funnier. Seeing the old woman vomit on Lohman’s face is shocking and disgusting at first, but the pure ridiculousness of it all actually relieves us somewhat instead of just leaving us with a sick sense in our stomachs.
The most impressive part of this film? The performances. Many seem to forget that horror films are still films, and acting is just as important as any other film. Many think that some mediocre acting will be overrided by some cheap scares and spectacular special effects. This is not the case, and that is the reason why horror films are losing their cinematic credibility. With the disappearance of our scream queens like Jamie Lee Curtis, we are losing truly great horror performances (one can say Vera Farmiga is our last remaining scream queen, but she’s too talented these days, and branching out into to many other projects, to be considered one, in my opinion). What we get in Drag Me to Hell is the normal young, pretty woman who is the victim of unfortunate horrors. The difference? SHE CAN ACT. She is also incredibly likable, and the idea of her being killed actually breaks out hearts, and we root for her more than any other horror hero yet – because let’s be honest, sometimes those kids in a Friday the 13th films are incredibly dumb, and seeing them die isn’t pleasant, but its not particularly sad either. No, Allison Lohman is amazing as Christine in this film, and she gives the performance absolutely everything she can. But it doesn’t stop there – Lorna Raver herself is absolutely stunning as the sinister gypsy woman, and I must commend Raimi for giving us such a hilarious and grotesque scene like the fight between Lohman and Raver in the car. It was pure cinematic horror brilliance. There was no real overacting, which is a common staple in horror cinema today, and there were some very underplayed, quiet performances that were damn impressive.
In the end, Drag Me to Hell is great horror film – it never takes itself too seriously, and Raimi makes it a funny but incredibly scary film. Some will see this as a crappy, silly horror film, but if you look beyond what you see initially, you will find you have just experienced the smartest, most satirical horror you can imagine. We can only hope such films come around again.