Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I can’t get as jazzed about Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell as I’m apparently supposed to. Oh, I had a good enough time with it—a talking goat is pretty hard to resist—but I never felt I was watching the best horror picture in years—as some critics have enthused—and a lot of its efforts at cult appeal came across as totally prefabricated. I’m sure the cries of “instant cult classic” will find good homes on the DVD case, but the whole “set out to make a cult film” approach misunderstands the very idea of a cult movie. Filmmakers don’t make cult movies; audiences do. Whether Drag Me to Hell becomes a cult classic is for viewers and time to decide.
Don’t get me wrong, Drag Me to Hell is an amusing collection of fun-house jolts—augmented by abnormally loud sound effects and musical stings—and some pleasant nods to nuts-and-bolts horror-movie tricks. It’s always nice to see a filmmaker goose you with clever gimmicks like shadows and goat hooves barely glimpsed beneath a door. And I’m not about to complain that there’s a pleasing absence of the sadism that marks far too many modern efforts at horror.
Plus, I’m more than enough of a horror geek to smile at the various references to horror pictures from the past, most notably Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957), from which Raimi’s movie draws a good deal of its premise. Tourneur’s film deals with a curse placed on a professional skeptic who refuses to halt an investigation into a devil-worship cult. The curse—involving a parchment that has to be passed to the victim—conjures a demon that will increasingly haunt the man for two weeks before showing up in what one critic called “full-frontal crudity” to claim his prey. In keeping with our faster-paced world, the victim here, Christine Brown (Alison Lohman)—who has angered an elderly gypsy (Lorna Raver) by foreclosing on her mortgage—only gets three days’ notice and a much less subtle buildup. Think of this as Night of the Demon on amphetamines as reimagined by the Three Stooges.
The movie exists mostly as a series of increasingly flashy—and sometimes surprisingly gross—set pieces. They work because Raimi knows how to deliver a nice jolt in a cartoonish way that allows him to include the expected (the séance is impressive as fairly straightforward horror) and the unexpected (a stapler used as a weapon). Raimi creates such a screwy world that you never question just why anyone who isn’t Wile E. Coyote would just happen to have an anvil suspended from a rope in his or her garage. And even if you did pause to question this, it’s so quickly followed by inspired gross-out splatstick that you can’t dwell on it. But this kind of jokiness comes with a price. The results are fun. They’re a terrific thrill ride. And they’ll make you jump. What they won’t do is actually scare you. Even when Raimi creates an atmospheric scene, it’s so consciously campy that it’s never creepy—and it never stays with you as horrific.
What you have then is a deliberately cheesy B movie that’s a whole lot of really insubstantial fun. Additionally, Drag Me to Hell is never less than predictable. Perhaps because so many of the movies—or types of movies—it draws from are transparent in their plotting, this was inevitable, but it’s hard to deny that Raimi’s setups are alarmingly obvious. If you’re charitably minded, you can change that to “amusingly obvious,” which pretty completely describes the film. Go with that expectation and have a good time, but do not expect the reinvention of the horror genre. Rated PG-13 for sequences of horror violence, terror, disturbing images and language.