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A Tried and True, Old Horror Story

October 22nd, 2009 · 4 Comments

Drag Me To Hell, 2009 lobby card

Drag Me To Hell (2009)
Written by Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi
Directed by Sam Raimi
Produced by Ghost House Pictures
Running time: 99 minutes

So, What’s This About?

In Pasadena, California, 1969, a migrant couple frantically seeks the help of medium Shaun San Dena (Flor de Maria Chahua) to dispel the demons that began harassing their son after he stole from a gypsy. 30 years later, Los Angeles loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) strives to overcome a few personal demons of her own. With her professor boyfriend (Justin Long) offering emotional support, Christine covets a management position at the bank where she works. Hoping to demonstrate to her boss (David Paymer) that she can make tough decisions, Christine denies a decaying gypsy named Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) an extension on her home loan.

After a violent encounter with Mrs. Ganush — in which the crone snatches a button from her coat and breathes a curse on it — Christine visits a storefront psychic named Rham Jas (Dileep Rao) who sees an evil spirit haunting her. Following an attack by an unseen force at home and a freak sickness at the office, Christine revisits Rham and learns that her tormentor is the Lamia, a demon that will plague the owner of a cursed object for three days before dragging their soul into hell. He suggests Christine appease the Lamia with an animal sacrifice, but when that fails, she comes up with $10,000 for Shaun San Dena (Adriana Barraza) to vanquish the Lamia.

Drag Me To Hell, 2009, Adriana Barraza, Alison Lohman, Dileep Rao

Who Made It?

Sam Raimi grew up in Birmingham, Michigan. While his older brother Ivan Raimi would go on to become a practicing doctor of osteopathic medicine, Sam dropped out Michigan State University after three semesters to raise money and shoot a feature version of a 32-minute horror movie demo Raimi had patched together with his roommate Bruce Campbell starring and brother Ted’s roommate Rob Tapert producing. Titled The Evil Dead (1981), the hyperkinetic no budget flick grew into a cult classic. Raimi helped inspire the careers of Joel & Ethan Coen, who co-wrote Crimewave (1985) with Raimi. The tongue-in-cheek Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn (1987), the superhero adventure Darkman (1990) and the special effects romp Army of Darkness (1992) followed.

Sam and his brother Ivan had written a short story about a gypsy hex they referred to simply as The Curse. As Sam Raimi’s directing career made a build toward prestige with A Simple Plan (1998), The Gift (2000), Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004) and Spider-Man 3 (2007), Raimi hoped to produce The Curse through his production shingle Ghost House Pictures, with another director taking the reins. Unable to interest anyone, Raimi opted to direct the film, making a return to his low budget spooky roots with Nathan Kahane and Joe Drake of Mandate Pictures financing a comparatively low budget of around $30 million. Sneaking into theaters Memorial Day 2009 under the title Drag Me To Hell, the B-movie became one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2009.

Drag Me To Hell, 2009, Alexis Cruz, Ruth Livier

How’d They Do It?

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.”

Drag Me To Hell, 2009, Alison Lohman, David Paymer

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.”

Drag Me To Hell, 2009, Lorna Raver

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).

Drag Me To Hell, 2009, Alison Lohman, Justin Long

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.”

Drag Me To Hell, 2009

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.’”

Drag Me To Hell, 2009, Lorna Raver, Alison Lohman

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.”

Drag Me To Hell, 2009, Alison Lohman

Should I Care?

When watching a film directed by Sam Raimi, I almost expect to see characters depart in a puff of dust accompanied by rocket sound effects, like Looney Tunes. Whether your point of entry are the spastic Evil Dead trilogy, the Sharon Stone quickdraw epic The Quick and the Dead (1995) or the artificially flavored Spider-Man series, Raimi approaches movies less as art and more like a carnival funhouse, which over time, like the Looney Tunes, sort of makes them art. Drag Me To Hell is the latest coaster from a ride operator who’s had 30 years and over a billion dollars of expertise shelling out intense amusement. Never for a moment scary, this movie does have a moral, a mind and an old school style that gives the horror genre a desperately needed shot in the arm.

Framing a story against the economic recession, mining folklore for inspiration and delivering one of the best shock endings in recent memory, Drag Me To Hell has replaced A Simple Plan as my favorite Sam Raimi movie to date. Plenty goofy on the surface, there are strong ideas under the current here (Patton Oswalt theorized the movie was an allegory for anorexia!) I liked the suggestion that the westerners were seemingly oblivious of the supernatural world that the Mexican, Eastern European and South Asian characters had a hunting blind into. Whether there’s any subtext here or not, the movie is fun as hell, abetted by Christopher Young’s terrific musical score and an Oscar caliber sound mix that makes squishing gums, creaking gates or gust of wind outright characters in the film.

Drag Me To Hell, 2009

Where’d You Get All of This?
“Raimi Hell Bent on Thriller” By Michael Fleming. Variety, 19 December 2007

“Sam Raimi Interview for Drag Me to Hell By Matt Elfman. ScreenCrave, 27 May 2009

“Sam Raimi has horror in his clutches” By Gina McIntyre. The Los Angeles Times, 28 May 2009

Drag Me To Hell — Production Notes

“Sam Raimi Interview, Drag Me To Hell

“The Script Doctor”
By Denis Faye. Writers Guild of America

Tags: Beasts and monsters · Dreams and visions · Supernatural · Train · Woman in jeopardy

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Pat Evans // Oct 23, 2009 at 4:06 am

    We’re focusing on a lot of the same films recently. See my review for this one:

    I also recently viewed Trick ‘r Treat which you covered as well, but had little to add to your very excellent summary.

  • 2 Daniel // Oct 24, 2009 at 8:23 am

    “Drag Me To Hell has replaced A Simple Plan as my favorite Sam Raimi movie”


    I liked DMTH, too, but just A Simple Plan again this week and fell into an even deeper love with it.

    Great review here as always!

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Oct 24, 2009 at 8:31 am

    Patricia: Nice review! Horror-comedy may be the most difficult subgenre to pull off, with most efforts like Cabin Fever getting the “comedy” right and bungling the “horror”. Sam Raimi is such a skilled filmmaker though that Drag Me To Hell can be appreciated either for its Three Stooges sense of humor, its dark moral, or both. Thanks for commenting!

    Dan: Yeah, I watched A Simple Plan again about a year ago. It’s a terrific film, but it didn’t hold up quite as well for me, now that I know the twists and turns. If I haven’t completely alienated the Sam Raimi enthusiasts in the house, I should mention that I haven’t seen Evil Dead 2 yet.

  • 4 Doug Bonner // Nov 14, 2009 at 3:33 pm

    Great post. Thanks for giving me so much data on the best movie of the year.

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