On Drag Me To Hell

Drag Me To Hell is a pretty good film. Created by Sam Raimi (Spider-Man film series), Ivan Raimi, and Rob Tapert (Xena: Warrior Princess), according to This Distracted Globe on the making of the film:

Ivan Raimi pinned the genesis of Drag Me To Hell to an exercise he and his brother Sam gave themselves. “We started writing this so far back. We were working on Darkman, I believe, at the time. We’d reached some sort of impasse, and we had the weekend off, we decided to do something else. We challenged ourselves to write a short story in the time we had. It was something that might be meant for a half-hour TV show. That was the beginning of Drag Me to Hell. We wanted to write a gypsy curse story. A story of what somebody would do if they inadvertently got cursed and the lengths they would go to to remove the curse. I think I was dating a bank teller at the time and that’s how the woman became a bank teller.”

He continued, “It got shuffled to the bottom of the trunk, and we always wanted to work on it. Every now and then we’d dust it off and start working on it. Eventually, Sam had this company, Ghost House Pictures and said, ‘Yeah, we should work on it for Ghost House.’ So it became more earnest. It kept going in slightly different directions. It was always a little story. Every time we had a B-story, we’d work hard to integrate it into the A-story, but it never wanted to be that. It always wanted to be the very simple, nonstop story of a curse and the clock’s ticking and what to do to remove it. It went through a lot of permutations but eventually got back to what it was originally intended to be. It’s almost completely an A-story. There’s not much subplot or subtext.”

Sam Raimi recalled the origins of Drag Me To Hell by stating, “My brother, Ivan, and I had written this short story in 1989. Then just a few years ago, in 2002, we adapted it into a screenplay. I have a horror movie company called Ghost House Pictures, so I thought, why not make it into a full-fledged screenplay for the new company? We wrote it in mind with me to produce and for another director to come in and shoot it. Unfortunately that meant cutting the script so it could be made on a smaller budget. And as I started cutting, I realized that’s not why I was in it. I wasn’t there just to make a movie. I wanted to make this movie.”

He continued, “We did the most minor amount of research and discovered there are different demons that exist in many different cultures under the name of ‘Lamia’. In one culture, it’s this baby-eating God. In another, it’s a snake. In another, it’s a very sexy, but evil woman. And we thought, how interesting that they all have the same name, yet they’re all different. Maybe they’re just telling different stories about the same thing? Maybe we can tell our own story about that demon and call it The Lamia? What we really have at the core here is a timeless story concept that was used in this film, along with many others: the idea of a character that commits a sin of greed and has to pay the terrible price for it. It’s a morality tale that many churches have told, throughout the ages. So it’s a tried and true, old horror story in the book, basically.”

Ivan Raimi — who practices osteopathic medicine at Saint Joseph Mercy Livingston Hospital in Howell, Michigan — elaborated on his and his brother’s creative process. “When we write, we’ll have a project that’s assigned to us, or Sam and I will come up with some very basic concept that we try to turn into a couple pages, then together we’ll work it into a five-page story, then we’ll maybe make it into a ten-page story. Then we roughly outline it as well as our limited brains can, then give it a three act structure. But we’re not super structure guys.” He added, “Occasionally, he’ll write a little bit on his own, or I’ll write a little bit on my own, but when we write together, it’s sort of an extension of playing. It’s like being a kid when you’re making up stories. That’s the advantage of working with your brother.”

Sam Raimi commented on the partnership. “I’ve worked on many scripts with Ivan. He’s a doctor by day and a writer by night. We’ve actually spent a lot of time together, writing sometimes on the Spider-Man films, Darkman, Army of Darkness, and we have a great time being together. So it’s really both great family time and great work time for us. Unless he tries to rewrite me. The quality of that family time goes down a little bit, proportional to the amount he wants to rewrite me.” In December 2007, it was announced that Sam Raimi was returning to the horror genre by directing Drag Me To Hell for his Ghost House Pictures banner. The company had produced American remakes of The Grudge (2004) and The Grudge 2 (2006) and the vampire flick 30 Days of Night (2007).

Through Ghost House’s partnership with Mandate Pictures, roughly $30 million in financing was scared up. To play the cursed heroine, Ellen Page — who in December 2007 was being celebrated by critics and adored by moviegoers for her performance in Juno — was cast. Mandate had already booked the ingénue to play a supporting role in the mystery Peacock and the lead in Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut Whip It. Despite efforts to get Drag Me To Hell rolling in mid-March to accommodate her schedule, a two-week delay in production forced Page to drop out. Alison Lohman — who’d experienced an Ellen Page year in 2002-03 with pivotal roles in White Oleander, Matchstick Men and Big Fish — was cast instead.

Drag Me To Hell
commenced filming May 2008 in Tarzana, California, the site of an empty bank building that was transformed into “Wilshire Pacific Bank” by Steve Saklad, art designer of Spider-Man 2. Director of photography Peter Deming had shot Evil Dead 2 for Raimi before serving as David Lynch’s DP on Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. Supervising the special makeup effects were Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger of KNB EFX Group, who also met Raimi on Evil Dead 2; the company has since become the premiere makeup effects team in Hollywood. Nicotero commented, “Visual effects are fun, but there’s just something about a bunch of guys pulling cables and moving a puppet around. Sam is still enamored with that.”

Deming concurred. ““Sam loves B-movie stuff. He really embraces the wind out of nowhere and the camera shaking and the inventive, interactive lighting. He eats that up.” Raimi maintained he didn’t have other movies in mind specifically during the making of Drag Me To Hell. “I was just trying to make this story as dramatic and fun as I could. Our goal was never to follow any trends or even to try to give the audience what we thought they would want. We always tried to please ourselves — myself and my brother Ivan Raimi — when we were writing the script and in doing so, hoped that we would please the audience.” Additional scenes were filmed at Cal State Northridge and Union Station, while most of the interiors were shot on the 20th Century Fox lot in Los Angeles.

With Universal Pictures acquiring domestic and international distribution rights,Drag Me To Hell was screened March 2009 at the South By South Film Festival in Austin and at the Cannes Film Festival just before opening in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France and Israel in May. While more than a few horror buffs expressed reservations about the film’s PG-13 rating, Raimi explained, “I definitely, when I was writing the picture with my brother Ivan, didn’t want to rely on what I had relied on in the previous horror films, the Evil Dead films which was outrageous amounts of violence, blood and gore. I wanted to go in a slightly different direction with this one so I said, ‘Let’s try not to have any of that if we can, blood and violence and gore.’”

Critics jumped out of the theater praising the film. Jeannette Catsoulis, The New York Times: “At a time when horror is defined by limp Japanese retreads or punishing exercises in pure sadism, Drag Me to Hell has a tonic playfulness that’s unabashedly retro, an indulgent return to Mr. Raimi’s goofy, gooey roots.” Michael Phillips, The Chicago Tribune: “This hellaciously effective B-movie comes with a handy moral tucked inside its scares, laughs and Raimi’s specialty, the scare/laugh hybrid.” Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle: “Raimi pairs his love of Three Stooges-style physical comedy with moments of pure gross-out schtick and ends up with one of the purest and flat-out satisfying horror films in decades.”

Considered a marketing challenge — with a PG-13 rating that may have alienated horror fans and subject matter that definitely turned away families — Drag Me To Hell still grossed $42.1 million in the United States and $40.7 million overseas. Echoing the response of many who discovered the film, Sam Raimi enthused, “It was the most fun I’ve had in 20 years directing pictures. It was great to make a horror film where we had money to hire the best technicians in their fields. I had the luxury of not freezing to death when I was making the movie or filming it myself like in the first Evil Dead film, which was shot in 16mm and we didn’t have money for heat. I remember washing fake blood off my hands with hot coffee because we didn’t have running water there.”

According to The Info Zombie on the twists and turns in the film:

Every time Christine has felt as though she countered Mrs. Ganush’s curse, something happens to give the evil the upper hand.  Be it sacrificing the kitten, the séance, or the grave visit, each scene feels as though Christine has triumphed.  But then the clincher ending hits like a speeding train.  There are no apologies, no ‘it was just a dream’ cop-outs, and no excuses.  The evil wins.  That’s the most devoted way to finish a horror film.  Christine Brown, as the title blatantly states, gets dragged down to Hell. No saves.  This was a ballsy move for a society that needs the happy ending every time; thus it’s a twist that feels odd even though evil should triumph in horror.

I understand that not every one has the same affinity for the film that I do.  I have no problem if you didn’t like the movie.  All that I ask is an understanding as to why I champion it.

According to Roger Ebert:

“Drag Me to Hell” is a sometimes funny and often startling horror movie. That is what it wants to be, and that is what it is. After scaling the heights with “A Simple Plan” (1998) and slugging a home run with the “Spider-Man” franchise, it’s like Sam Raimi is taking some personal time and returning to his hobby.

He is greatly assisted by his star, Alison Lohman. Horror movies with nasty old men can be fun (see “Bride of Frankenstein”), but for the mainline product there’s nothing like a sweet and vulnerable girl. Although in real life she’s pushing 30, Lohman looks nowhere near old enough to be Christine, the bank loan officer. No wonder she has such a chaste sleep-apart relationship with her boyfriend, Clay Dalton (Justin Long). I suspect they practice abstinence.

If “Clay Dalton” rings a bell, those are surely two of the most common names in movies; there have been 761 Clays and 413 Daltons. That’s the kind of elbow nudge Raimi likes to provide, especially since the character really requires no surname. The whole movie is nudges, especially scenes involving a cute kitten and Shock Reveals. Cute kitties of course are useful in the It’s Only a Cat! false alarms, and Raimi deserves praise for not using this kitten in that way. Shock Reveals are of course the moments when a terrifying image explodes from the scene, scaring the split pea soup out of the heroine.

Shock Reveals should logically be silent, unless the Revealed is screaming. But in horror films they always come with discordant chords and loud bangs. This is as obligatory as the fact that blades always make a snicker-snack noise even when they are not scraping enough something.

It is essential that the heroine (for horror victims are conventionally women) be a good screamer, and man, can that Alison Lohman scream. Stanley Kubrick would have needed only a day with her on “The Shining,” instead of the weeks he spent with Shelley Duvall. Christine has reason to scream. An old gypsy woman with a blind eye and leprous fingernails asks her for a third extension on her home loan, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in this life, it’s that you never say no to an old gypsy woman with a blind eye and leprous fingernails.

In the struggle that follows, Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), rips a button off Christine’s coat, and that leads to no end of bad things, including the very real possibility that (spoiler) Christine will find herself Dragged to Hell. (unspoiler) Mrs. Ganush stalks and threatens her, Christine psyches out at work and with dinner with Clay Dalton’s parents, and Clay Dalton recruits an Indian-American mystic named Rham Jas (Dileep Rao) to fight on her side.

If you think “Rham Jas” is supposed to be an elbow nudge for the famous Ram Das, you may be on to something. I didn’t find any occurrence of “Rham Jas,” except those citing this movie, in the first 1,000 Google hits, which I considered to be due diligence.

For a Pasadena soothsayer who accepts American Express, Rham Jas is remarkably knowledgeable about the Rules of Hell, especially as they pertain to buttons and kittens. He struggles with Christine and Clay Dalton to appease Mrs. Ganush, especially after she dies and gains a powerful ally. Shock Reveals nevertheless occur with increasing frequency and ferocity.

Christine is badgered, beaten and hexed. Her body and soul are put through the wringer. Things get so bad Clay Dalton sleeps over one night. The other nights, he simply drops her off in front of her Arts & Crafts house (pre-crash value circa $2 million) and says, “You sure you’ll be all right?” She always is, for some reason.

As Boss Gettys says of Citizen Kane, “He’s going to need more than one lesson, and he’s going to get more than one lesson.” Christine learns these lessons: (a) Never say no to an old gypsy woman with a blind eye and leprous fingernails; (2) Never dig a grave during the thunderstorm of the century; (3) If she calls Clay Dalton when she needs him, that will be too late. Little could the poor girl have anticipated that a time would come when the penalty for approving the old gypsy woman’s home loan application would be her whole bank being dragged down to hell.

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2 thoughts on “On Drag Me To Hell

  1. Pingback: On Army of Darkness | The Progressive Democrat

  2. Pingback: On After.Life | The Progressive Democrat

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