How much better is Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell for having Alison Lohman as its lead actress rather than the early choice, Ellen Page? Lohman—who lent the impersonal Ridley Scott a lovely pathos in the otherwise mediocre Matchstick Men (2003)—was born in 1979 but she looks not a day over twenty-five and imports a vibrant youthfulness and little-girl giddiness and magnetism of a high school student. Page, by contrast, was born in 1987, yet she pollinates her work with an ever so slightly brash cynicism and despondency. Lohman radiates a welcoming patina to the men who share the screen with her; Page's subtle attitudinal negativism would suit a young woman with a worldview tinged by misandry. Page would probably have succeeded in the role of ascendant loan officer Christine Brown but she would have had an uphill climb—for Lohman, however, the role is ostensibly like playing a variation of herself.
Raimi's long absence from the unadulterated horror of his Evil Dead pictures has made the wait for Drag Me to Hell nearly unbearable. The payoff, however, is so grandiose that there is no fear of disappointment or letdown. Drag Me to Hell—as the title itself vociferously declares—is no halfbreed excursion into the mundane passing for direly rampaging terror: it is the real deal. Like Raimi's grin-inducing cult films, Drag Me to Hell is wacky and warped. Reprieves from the assaulting horror—most conspicuously whipped about on the big screen and in the cinema by the exuberantly impressive and Academy Award-worthy sound-editing and -mixing—are short and exist not to banally contrast with the thrills and chills as in all too many films belonging to the loosely-defined genre, but to inform it. Raimi's newest picture is a smashing, exhausting triumph because he and his screenwriting collaborator brother Ivan so consummately embed the everyday quotidian world of Christine's with the oncoming gypsy curse which threatens her at every turn.
Lohman's performance never drives the film, because Christine as a construct is intended to make pivotal choices and continually react. Some critics have perhaps docked Raimi points for this—they may raise their thumb in approval but quibble with some of the particulars. They have it backwards. As a horror film, Drag Me to Hell, while featuring a dazzling facade, is not truly unique. As a complete film, however, it is an enticingly intimate composition. Raimi's art, even when anchored and occasionally buried by cheesiness (The Quick and the Dead) or apathetic bloat (Spider-Man 3), beams through. It is academic to suggest that all of drama comes down to choices made by characters, but Raimi's particular—sometimes feverish—interest in the consequences of choices endows his films with an unusual heft for such a populist-minded filmmaker. Raimi's multifarious interpretations of morality and choice is an articulate, somewhat astral stand against rampant positivism. Raimi's characters are burdened by the inestimable accountability out of which their metaphorical bed is made.
Whether it be Peyton Westlake/Darkman or Peter Parker/Spider-Man, or the poor Mitchells of the melodramatically charged, deathly ashen A Simple Plan, Raimi's characters are in command of their own destinies, subjects to their own administration. They are infused with the culpability and original sin with which Catholics ceaselessly wrestle. Some critics may chide Raimi's “moralistic” approach—they are mistaken. As in the under-appreciated The Gift and the amiable but quite uneven For Love of the Game, Drag Me to Hell echoes beyond its running time because of the repercussions against which Christine, like Raimi protagonists before her, so tirelessly chafes. As rudimentary as Spider-Man's outstanding line of dialogue may in truth be (“With great power comes great responsibility...”) it remains potent—and in a vein deeper than materialistic or paternal noblesse oblige, which were the oversimplified readings of that film's tonal substance—in no small measure because Raimi is not a pedestrian journeyman ensuring the line readings were recorded; he believes the words.
Now opting for more visceral representations of that implication, Raimi allows the conveyed statement to reverberate with action. Christine's position at her bank is uncertain: she is desirous of a promotion but she must overcome the daunting obstacles of a weasely rival and the all too easily discerned air of sexism and buddy-buddy networking which plagues her professional life. On numerous planes, Christine is a symptomatic creature of modern American society. Gradually pushed to the brink of myriad possibilities such as taking shortcuts, fulfilling vengeance-laden gratification and aiming to please her fickle boss, Christine's journey is an enriching etching of feminine vim and dynamism set against the backdrop of a largely insensitive and hard-featured world. Lohman's sweetly angelic and innocent features italicize the Raimi brothers' point: the darkness of the world is always seeking out the beautiful for retribution, whether deserving of its presence or not.
The meshing of the most base elements of the corporeal and the unthinkable devastation of the otherworldly has rarely been this rivetingly staged. In Drag Me to Hell, bodily fluids, insects and varied repulsive creatures and pests ground the presence of inconceivable evil like the “pea soup” of The Exorcist. While the visages of the picture sometimes play out like grotesque freak show acts strung along together, they cumulatively inspire a level of fright that surpasses mere sensorial reaction. Raimi's manipulative tricks taken by themselves are not breathtaking; the final, haunting tableau they engender is. This is a major accomplishment for Raimi, who proves that his prolonged stint with elephantine budgets has not irreversibly diminished his keen cinematic senses.
Everything aforementioned handsomely buttresses Drag Me to Hell's delirious banquet of Raimi's self-proclaimed “spook-a-blast”; and at his best Raimi communicates to the viewer with wordless irony. Many scenes begin with a scare and conclude with a laugh, but there is a sensation of knowing attached to that laugh, which hurts. Pretty girls having nosebleeds has become a periodical staple of horror and science-fiction (any fan of The X-Files will attest to that) but Raimi pushes the accelerator all the way down to the floor (and in doing so proves that PG-13 need not be synonymous with toothless)—partly for the gasps and chuckles the more robustly animated mise-en-scene inspire but also because it is through the excellently explored absurd that reality finds itself most nakedly revealed. In this instance, a nosebleed becomes a Biblical flood, and a sight gag segues into primal, human fear. “Did any get in my mouth?” Christine's boss frantically asks. The fear itself is futile, as Raimi continually evidences: evil is already lodged within us, perpetually fighting to get out.