With slapstick horror flick Drag Me To Hell, Sam "Spider-Man" Raimi returns to the genre that first inspired our love for him. Full of goofy gore, genuine chills, and a plot that plays nicely on our recessionary fears, this is the best summer movie yet.
Before emo Spidey, Raimi created the Evil Dead trilogy, as well as Darkman. Whatever you may think of Spider-Man 3, you can't deny that Raimi has cred as a B-movie maker of the highest order. And with Drag Me To Hell, Raimi proves he can still deliver the down-and-dirty with the best of 'em.
The story is pretty simple. Christine (a great, deadpan Alison Lohman) is a loan officer at a bank who wants desperately to get an assistant manager position and escape her hick past as a farm girl. She's dating Clay, a yuppie psychology professor from a rich family in Los Angeles, and this only heightens her anxiety. She wants to be classy enough to impress him and his family, who think he should date lawyers instead of farm girls. Meanwhile, Christine's boss is threatening to promote a man over her - a man they hired only weeks before - because he's able to "crunch the numbers" and "make the tough decisions." So when Christine has to decide whether to give an old woman a third extension on her mortgage payments, she's determined to make the "tough decision" to show her boss she's manager material.
When she denies the woman the loan extension (impressing her boss), it turns out she's messed with the wrong poverty-stricken old lady. She's invoked the wrath of a powerful gypsy who places a nasty curse on her, invoking the goat god Lamia, who wants to snack on our nice white girl's soul instead of leaving her to a future of marrying up and screwing over impoverished immigrants. Thus begins the fun.
As a helpful fortune teller explains to Christine, the Lamia will torment her for three days and then drag her to hell. We watch with increasing anxiety and glee as Christine is beaten up by scary goat-shaped shadows (great Evil Dead-esque effects), barfs up flies, and becomes so distraught that her promotion is threatened. Of course she fights back, becoming tougher and more mean-spirited as Lamia amps up the abuse. There's a great seance scene, involving a hilarious effect with a goat, and a lot of the plot developments may be silly but will still leave you feeling uncomfortable and crawly.
What makes this a brilliant B-movie, instead of merely a SyFy monster-of-the-week, is that it ably touches on real social anxieties. Christine's fears about her job, and being judged for her trashy class background, feel very real despite the cartoony setting. Like all good horror, Drag Me To Hell takes real-life fears, dresses them up in blood-soaked costumes, and sets them running.
It also expresses some anxieties that I'm fairly sure the filmmakers were completely ignorant about. The old immigrant lady who brings down the curse, Mrs. Ganush, is basically a broad racist stereotype. She's called a gypsy, which is a slur for an actual ethnic group called the Roma, who suffer a great deal of discrimination in Europe - in particular, discrimination from landlords among other things. Mrs. Ganush is represented as essentially evil, and as somebody who really doesn't deserve that loan extension (when we see her house, we find that it's in a state of horrible disrepair and is overrun with filthy relatives).
I think this kind of representation is possible only because many Americans don't realize that the Roma are a real people - they think of "gypsies" as fairy people, enchanted beings who don't really exist. Given that the movie is set in Los Angeles, a city packed with immigrants, Mrs. Ganush therefore becomes a kind of stand-in for all immigrants whose religious traditions and language are incomprehensible to the white farm girl. In Drag Me To Hell, immigrants consort with monsters and that is that. Sure, there are a few immigrant characters who try to fight Lamia too, but only after Christine sells all her jewelry to pay them to help her.
Ultimately my point here is that Drag Me To Hell is smart enough to invoke real social anxieties in a coherent (if not always progressive) way. At the same time, it's scary and fun enough that you can choose to watch the entire film without ever having the urge to call bell hooks to come in and give Raimi a slapdown. And in the end, you'll have to decide for yourself whether the movie really thinks that Christine is an innocent victim or deserves what she's gotten.
In fact, Drag Me To Hell perfectly fits the definition of a good summer movie. It's fast and loud, dragging you all over the place in a way that will make you laugh and scream. And when it's over, you'll still be left thinking about economic horror. The movie opens tomorrow. Get your ass out to see it!