If you were to tell a horror fan in the '80s or '90s that Sam Raimi would go on to make one of the most expensive films of all time (2007's Spider-Man 3, for the record - its final cost was just under $300m), they probably wouldn't believe you. Likewise, if you were to tell them that at a certain point in time (now) that the only film he had directed in nearly a decade was a mega-budget Wizard of Oz sequel, they'd be even more incredulous; hell, I've witnessed it myself and I still have trouble believing that one. But this time traveler with fairly useless information could calm that horror fan by telling them that, in 2009, right between those two blank check, family-friendly productions, he would at long last return to the horror genre to make a relatively low budget spiritual successor to Evil Dead 2 titled Drag Me To Hell. Even better, that film would prove his long time away from such fare didn't leave him too rusty to live up to the expectations one might have for such an event.
Like fellow surprise blockbuster-maker Peter Jackson, Raimi got his start making cheap movies with his friends, letting his talent speak for itself instead of hiding it behind big stars and all the 3D visuals $200m+ budgets can provide. It was this "See what he can do with nothing - now imagine what he can do with lots and lots of money!" thinking that led him to the studio system in the '90s, where his output was generally well-liked but rarely successful at the box office (oddly, his biggest grosser before Spider-Man was For Love of the Game, a costly dud that almost no one would recognize as one of his films without reading the credits). Despite his financially iffy track record, he secured the lucrative Spider-Man gig and gave Sony its biggest hit ever, followed by two very successful sequels, and after doing those films more or less back to back he could presumably walk into any studio in town and get something greenlit because the marketing could rest on "From the director of the Spider-Man trilogy" on the trailers and posters.
So what did he do? He made Drag Me To Hell, which embraced his passion for both slapstick and gooey liquids in equal measure - a rare horror comedy that seems determined to split that bill evenly. Yes, this can lead to the occasional less-than-graceful shift in tone, but Raimi's glee from behind the camera practically becomes visible onscreen, keeping it from ever being an issue. Or at least it does for me; I knew a few folks who don't like the film and I feel sad for them, as they are denying themselves pure cinematic joy from a guy who was clearly relishing being back on a small production again, without a dozen producers telling him what to do (*cough* Venom *cough*) and the pressure of living up to two of the (then) ten highest grossing movies ever. It's not that I can't understand why a regular moviegoer would dislike the film, because I do (even I have trouble with Alison Lohman's uneven performance at times), but when self-described Raimi fans say they hated it, I'm baffled.
Part of what I love about it is how focused it is on its very simple plot, in which a young bank employee named Christine (Lohman) is cursed by an old gypsy woman after denying her an extension on her mortgage, knowing that her boss would be pleased and give her a better shot at a promotion. Christine doesn't get thinn(nnnnnn)er or turned into a monster or anything - she will just be terrorized by a demon named Lamia for three days, and then sent to hell, just as the title promises. She tries a few things to stop that from happening, but otherwise, that's it, no further complications. Her boyfriend, coworkers, and other people in her life are not in any danger - the Lamia is nice enough to only really attack her when no one else is around to be potential collateral damage. When other folks are present, the Lamia merely messes with her head, like during a "meet the boyfriend's parents" scene where she (and only she) sees that her perfectly good harvest cake has seemingly been baked with eyes and bugs inside of it. The back and forth between psychological torment and good ol' fashioned Raimi abuse of his actors is fairly well balanced, keeping the film from being 90 minutes of poor Alison Lohman being tossed around the room, while also letting the supporting cast in on SOME of the fun they're otherwise denied due to Christine being the only target. Justin Long as her boyfriend is kept from anything FX-driven until the film's closing scene, in fact; if he only read his own scenes in the script he might not have even realized it was a horror film.
This is also probably why the film was able to keep a PG-13 rating (that and Raimi probably having a bit of clout he never would have had before he was "Spider-Man's Sam Raimi"). Despite the low body count, the film is the harshest PG-13 you'll ever see, with eyeballs flying, repeated stapler attacks to the face, and even an honest-to-god anvil being dropped on someone's head (one of the many moments in the film that had me questioning the sanity of someone who, back in 2009, was convinced the movie was not meant to be funny). Some of the red stuff had to be recolored to keep it from an R, and the aforementioned nose-bleed scene lost some of its excess (restored in the unrated cut), but I can name you a dozen R-rated horror films that aren't half as "worthy" of the MPAA's scorn as the film we got to see in theaters, and was inexplicably lambasted by a few horror fans (well, "fans") who were livid that Raimi was making a PG-13 horror film, as if he hadn't fought (and lost) to get the same rating for their beloved Army of Darkness.
Speaking of which, that one celebrated its 25th anniversary this week, so it's funny that I finally got around to watching this Blu-ray (which hit last week from Scream Factory) as I've always said this was more in line with the spirit of Evil Dead 2 than its actual sequel. It's not that I think Army is a bad movie (though the only Raimi movie I'd be less likely to want to watch again is Oz), but with all the focus on Ash and a near total lack of genuine horror it feels like a spinoff more than a sequel, with the adventure plot leaving very little time for the horror/comedy hybrid that made ED2 such a beloved classic. Drag feels more in line with his 1987 splatterpiece; the séance scene that comes late here is right out of the same playbook that gave us ED2's crazier highlights, such as Ash's hallucination breakdown. Also, this time around Universal let Raimi embrace his dark sense of humor with the ending; if you recall, they made him reshoot Army of Darkness' finale so that Ash gets home (and the girl) instead of the original ending where he got stuck in some alternate future after drinking too much of the potio. But the filmmaker got his dark ending here, with our hero making a clumsy mistake of her own and fulfilling the title before the eyes of her horrified boyfriend. Not only did Universal go with this all along (there is no alternate ending that I know of), but they put the movie out during the summer season, during which you're more likely to find hardcore porn in the multiplex than anything one might consider "a downer".
(For what it's worth, I'd be more angry if she survived, considering what she did to that poor kitty.)
Ultimately, what I find most endearing about the film is the same thing that I primarily love about the first two Evil Dead films: it's made by a guy who isn't afraid to let his warring sensibilities go up on display in a single film. Back when I wrote things that weren't just reviews, I always struggled with trying to get through something more dramatic or tense without the characters dropping jokes (or worse, talking about horror movies and singing Jim Steinman songs out of nowhere). Not that I dismiss other creator's dramas for their usual lack of Cathy's Curse references, but when *I'm* the one doing it and trying to write something normal, I constantly feel the itch to just say "fuck it" and throw in the stuff that would make me happy to see on-screen. Raimi doesn't ignore that magnetic pull - he embraces it, and it's something I try to keep in mind on those rare occasions I write, that there's no rule saying you can't mix and match your passions even if they don't seem to "fit", and even if there was, guys like Sam Raimi break it anyway.
It's a shame more folks don't embrace this madcap style when it comes to buying tickets; Drag wasn't a bomb, but it wasn't exactly a huge hit, either, and you'd probably be as sad as I was to look at Boxofficemojo's chart for 2009 and see the likes of The Unborn and Underworld 3 ranking higher in ticket sales. And you'd be even sadder to see that his bland Oz movie outgrossed Drag in two days. Yes, obviously a family film based on a beloved tale is going to pull in more money than an original, offbeat horror movie, but in that same year movies like Zombieland and My Bloody Valentine 3-D outgrossed it, so clearly audiences weren't opposed to their horror being a little goofy too. Worse, it's the sort of movie that works best with a big crowd of appreciative viewers, cheering for all the gags and groaning with laughter at the morbid touches (the "hang in there" poster makes me laugh every single time). Alas, packed houses were scarce, and by its 3rd weekend it was already about to drop out of the top 10, behind the likes of Terminator: Salvation and Angels & Demons. You know, those beloved masterpieces.
Luckily, time heals all box office wounds, and I was happy to see younger fans being excited about Scream Factory's Blu being released, even though it's a relatively new title that was already available on high def disc (as opposed to the older films they usually put out, some of which never even hit DVD let alone Blu). Ash vs Evil Dead (which I do like, for the record, as it again feels more like a proper continuation of the original films; it's *Evil Dead*, not "Army of Darkness: The Show") has likely revived interest in this very particular form of horror-comedy, so it's a good time for the film to be discovered or re-evaluated, and doing so on a nice new transfer with a few new extras (still no Raimi commentary though, dammit - though it's easier than ever to spot Octavia Spencer in a bit part as one of Lohman's coworkers) is always a plus. No, it won't be a film for everyone, but those who shine to its particular charms will find little else like it, especially nowadays, and from a major studio like Universal to boot. With Raimi taking more and more time in between movies these days, hopefully his fans who dismissed it at the time will give it another look to tide themselves over until he gets behind the camera again (with his Del Toro-esque penchant for announcing projects that never happen, I'll wait until cameras are rolling on The Kingkiller Chronicle to get excited). If you can watch Army of Darkness a hundred times, you can certainly give this one a second chance.