The bank regretfully declines your application for spoilers…
Way back in 1911, the provost of Oxford University, M.R. James published his second collection of weird fiction, More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, which contains the famous story, Casting The Runes. This much anthologized tale tells of an occultist Karswell (believed to be modeled on the Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley) who wreaks revenge on those who have slighted him with a fearsome curse. Those who have wounded Karswell’s feelings are tormented for a time by a diabolic entity before it ultimately slays them. And the hero of the tale must discover away to break the curse.
Although virtually all of James’ stories are regarded as classics, only a small selection has been adapted for the screen. And of the works favored for filming, all bar one have been television plays. And the single tale to make it onto the silver screen is Casting The Runes – which in 1957 became Jacques Tourneur’s Night Of The Demon (or Curse of The Demon if you’re Stateside). Tourneur’s film admirably expands James’ short story to feature length; fleshing out the plot with a neat subplot concerning skepticism versus the supernatural, and adding memorable scenes of the demon messing with the victim’s mind. He also changes the curse’s time frame, from James’ three months to three days…
Now if you’ve seen the trailer for Drag Me To Hell, all of this will sound very familiar. Instead of a rationalist scholar slighting an obviously wicked magician, Drag Me To Hell has an ordinary bank employee upsetting an old gypsy woman, and has three days to escape her fate. But like Night Of The Demon, Raimi’s movie includes a mystically inclined Indian character and an eerie séance. While it cannot be strictly considered a remake of Tourneur’s classic, it’s fair to say Drag Me To Hell contains a fair amount of the same DNA. To use a musical analogy, Drag Me To Hell is more a variation on Night Of The Demon, and by extension on James’ original.
In his preface to More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911) the good doctor outlined the loose rules by which he constructed his chillers. Firstly according to James - “as a rule, the setting should be fairly familiar and the majority of the characters and their talk such as you may meet or hear any day”. And in his introduction to Ghosts & Marvels he adds -
Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.
Now Drag Me To Hell follows these rules to the letter. The opening scenes deftly introduces us to Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) and very quickly describe her life, relationships and character. A common failing of many horror films is to present characters that we form no attachment with, and indeed in many cases are written to be so badly written and/or unpleasant we are merely counting off the minutes until their doom. However Christine is a protagonist with we can relate to, and more importantly sympathize with – like most of us she’s struggling at work and feels a little insecure in her romantic relationship.
Her fateful encounter with Mrs Ganush (Lorna Raver) neatly fulfills another of James’ assertions - that a good weird tale should “put the reader into the position of saying to himself: ‘If I’m not careful, something of this kind may happen to me!’ ”. And unlike many horror film characters, she isn’t blindly stupid. Refreshingly, this is not a movie where you end shouting “oh for chrissakes, don’t do that!” at the characters. The horrible situations Christine finds herself in aren’t easily cured with a bit of intelligence for once.
Having warmed the audience to their heroine, Raimi proceeds to gradually unleash the supernatural mayhem. As a director Raimi has always had a firm grasp on the dynamics of cinema, and Drag Me To Hell unfolds beautifully, building up the tension with a startling series of increasingly menacing scenes.
The manifestations of the film's demon, the Lamia, also fulfills another of James’ precepts - “another requisite, in my opinion, is that the ghost should be malevolent or odious”. There is powerful sense of malevolent mischief and cruel spite in its attacks on Christine; like the demons of the elder world in his Evil Dead films, the Lamia loves to mock the meat it feeds on. This sardonic streak of sadism really adds to the film’s atmosphere – the outbreaks of weirdness inflicted on Christine genuinely feel like the work of an evil personality, lending character and presence to scenes which in lesser hands would merely be an excuse to open the special effects toy box.
Before this film’s release, while there was widespread rejoicing that Raimi was returning to the horror genre, there was also much furrowing of brows with the announcement that Drag Me To Hell was not going to be an 18/R rated feature. Many fans feared that the lack of the adult rating would mean that this would be a somewhat neutered affair. However, I pleased to report that Raimi has not watered down the horror for the kiddie market – indeed it’s only really the lack of swearing and nudity that mark it out as a 15/PG13 certificate. And while here isn’t much blood in the film, there is more than enough non-sanguine unpleasantness to enjoy. My personal feeling is that the constraints of the film’s certificate actually allowed Raimi to be far more inventive with his mayhem, presenting us with creative scenes that deliver far more striking imagery than the usual buckets of gore and tits and ass. To quote Dr James again –
Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it, and there is much blatancy in a lot of recent stories. They drag in sex too, which is a fatal mistake; sex is tiresome enough in the novels; in a ghost story, or as the backbone of a ghost story, I have no patience with it. At the same time don't let us be mild and drab. Malevolence and terror, the glare of evil faces, 'the stony grin of unearthly malice', pursuing forms in darkness, and 'long-drawn, distant screams', are all in place, and so is a modicum of blood, shed with deliberation and carefully husbanded.
And Drag Me To Hell is very from mild and drab! As I’m attempting to keep this spoiler-free, I can’t really furnish you with examples but suffice to say that this film contains the same blends of tension, jump-out-of-your-seat shocks and gasp-out-loud physical horrors as Raimi’s other entries in the genre.
Indeed, as well as being a cinematic grandchild of James’ tale, there is a clear family resemblance to the Evil Dead films. On one level, Raimi has placed within Drag Me To Hell numerous call-backs to his deadite trilogy, but looking at the film more stylistically, this latest opus actually feels like it belongs in the same fictional universe. In terms of tone, Drag Me To Hell slots neatly between the first two Evil Dead films; possessing the same aura of dread and conviction to terrify its audience as the first and the riotous fun of the second, while avoiding the excesses of both. What more could one ask from a Raimi directed horror?
From the outset, Raimi proclaimed that he wanted Drag Me To Hell to be a fun and fast ghost train of a movie. And he has certainly succeeded in this aim – this film is quite simply a classic slice of ghoulish entertainment. With so many current horror films aiming solely for the gag reflex, it’s great to have a film like this that understands the fun of a good scare. Drag Me To Hell never oversteps what James refers to as “the line of legitimate horridness”, and Raimi balances the dread and horror with touches of humour. Much like the infamous EC horror comics of the ‘50s (another strand of in this movie’s DNA incidentally), Raimi understands that the inclusion of a right sort of humour into a terror tale can actually heighten the horror.
But while this is a real thrill ride of a film, packed with all the fun of the fair, it delivers a good deal more. Unlike so many rollercoaster films which rely solely of the action and special effects to make their mark, Drag Me To Hell has a satisfying story and well rounded characters. And Raimi has assembled a fine cast for the job; Alison Lohman is a perfect Everywoman and deserves a great deal of credit not least for the amount of punishment she has to endure. Justin Long as her boy friend offers fine support and Dileep Rao is a comic delight as seer Rham Jas. At the end of the day, the film’s story hinges upon the characters, and it is effective comes because you actually care about them. And for once, we have a horror film that has a proper ending, not just a coda leaving the door flapping wide open for a sequel.
Drag Me To Hell is a terrific movie - one leaves the cinema grinning, not just wowed by the set pieces, but feeling fully satisfied from a good tale told well. Let's just hope we won't have to wait another 16 years before Raimi returns to the genre...
For those you interested, you can read MR James' Casting The Runes here.
JIM MOON, 2nd June 2009