• Gabe Powers

Drag Me to Hell Blu-ray Review (originally published 2018)

Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is on her way to having it all: a devoted boyfriend (Justin Long), a hard-earned job promotion, and a bright future. But, when she has to make a tough decision that evicts an elderly woman from her house, Christine becomes the victim of an evil curse. Now, she has only three days to dissuade a dark spirit from stealing her soul before she is dragged to hell for an eternity of unthinkable torment. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)



Sam Raimi spent most of the ‘90s trying to break out of his role as the cult filmmaker that invented the energetic extremes of The Evil Dead (filmed in the late ‘70s, but not released until 1981) and its beloved slapstick splatter sequel, Evil Dead II (1987). After failing to find blockbuster success with his homemade anti-superhero Darkman (1990) or his ambitious third Evil Dead movie, Army of Darkness (1992), Raimi paid his dues as a director for hire. He made The Quick and the Dead (1995), a revisionist western vehicle for a then-hot Sharon Stone (it flopped); A Simple Plan (1998) a poignant, well-received crime thriller (that also failed to turn a profit); For Love of the Game (1999), a bland Kevin Costner baseball movie (it lost money); before finally scoring a minor hit with a grounded supernatural thriller called The Gift (2000). After a decade of floundering, Raimi lobbied hard for the job of directing Spider-Man (2002), the first major motion picture to feature the popular comic character.


Spider-Man was an astronomical hit and broke a number box-office records. It ushered in a new era of superhero-themed blockbusters alongside Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000). Raimi’s golden goose proved to be a mixed blessing – he was finally a popular Hollywood director and he had achieved this status on a project he actually cared about, but he was also obligated to spend the next five years of his life making more Spider-Man movies. Following an even more successful sequel, Spider-Man 2 (2004), the Hollywood machine finally caught up to Raimi for the much-maligned Spider-Man 3 (2007). This third film was a ragged mix of the director’s personal and unusual interests (including an extended dance sequence) and studio mandates, among them the inclusion of a popular secondary villain named Venom, who the director wasn’t interested in using. Spider-Man 3 made a lot of money, but also cost a lot of money, and has a terrible critical reputation (time tends to be kind to Hollywood’s creatively ambitious failures). Raimi was scheduled to do a fourth film, but behind-the-scenes strife had taken its toll and he eventually left the franchise.



Bereft of his superhero cash-cow, Raimi returned to his roots for Drag Me to Hell (2009), to the relief of the fans that feared they’d lost him forever to Hollywood tentpoles. On its surface, Drag Me to Hell checks all of the Evil Dead boxes – or rather, all of the Evil Dead II boxes, since it avoided the graphic gore of the original film in favour of slapstick violence (Evil Dead II struggled to secure an R rating in 1988, but would probably qualify as a PG-13 by modern standards). Like George Romero’s zombie epics, Raimi and his brother Ivan’s script has origins in the ironic morality tales of EC brand horror comics, an institution that included anthology labels Tales From the Crypt, The Haunt of Fear, and The Vault of Horror (originally published between 1950 and 1955). According to the tradition, the central character (sometimes an average person, sometimes an outright villain) of a given story is presented with a moral quandary, in which they can gain instant gratification at the expense of another person’s safety/health/security/et cetera. When their choice causes inevitable tragedy, supernatural forces intervene and punishes them with a fittingly gruesome fate.


Drag Me to Hell’s base story was borrowed from pulp fiction authority M. R. James’ Casting the Runes, the fourth story in the author’s More Ghost Stories collection, published in 1911 – decades before EC was corrupting children’s minds – but was altered to fit the political narrative of 2009 America. Towards the end of the Bush Administration’s second term, all the years of war profiteering and bank deregulation contributed to a massive financial crisis, later dubbed The Great Recession. Predatory practices in the American real estate market was a key indicator and this “subprime mortgage crisis” curtailed into a complete collapse of certain banks, which were then bailed out by the incoming Obama Administration. Lives were ruined in the name of greed and the guilty parties went largely unpunished, to the chagrin of an estimated seven million people left unemployed.



Raimi didn’t necessarily turn the genre on its head, but he did ensure that Christine was a fully relatable and likeable protagonist – a direct contrast to Ash, the blowhard doofus hero of the Evil Dead movies (a trademark portrayal for star and Raimi friend Bruce Campbell). She makes a bad choice and only attempts to make amends for the sake of her own survival, but she also ultimately avoids passing on her bad karma to even more ethically bankrupt individuals. The entire film is layered with context from her childhood and teen years: we learn that her father died young, her mother is an alcoholic, and that she is doing everything she can to reinvent herself. She’s introduced driving through busy LA traffic while practicing proper diction with the aid of a self-help CD. She struggles to cover a southern drawl when saying the word “round” and exhibits hints of a lisp throughout the film.


This leads me to a popular alternate reading of the material, stating that the entire film is an elaborate bulimia/anorexia metaphor. It begins when Raimi injects a pointed shot of her longingly looking at the cakes in a bakery window early in the movie. Lamia’s first attack comes while she’s preparing dinner and has found an old picture of herself as an overweight child, standing next to a prize pig at something called the Pork Queen Fair of 1995. Ganush’s daughter (Adriana Barraza) notes, unprompted, that she used to be a “real fat girl.” A housefly worms its way into her mouth while she sleeps and buzzes inside her stomach, like the acidic grumble of hunger. There’s an entire scene built around Christine’s inability to eat a ‘haunted’ slice of cake in front of her bourgeoisie and judgemental future in-laws. Eventually, the imagery grows more specific as the movie’s gross-out moments compile. In human and spirit form, Ganush is constantly biting Christine or regurgitating maggots and embalming fluid onto her. At one point, the old woman’s ghost appears from behind a curtain to literally shoves her fist into Christine’s throat all the way down to the forearm in a cartoonish variation of the standard induced vomiting technique.


Drag Me to Hell was released theatrically with a box-office-friendly PG-13 rating, followed by a slightly bloodier unrated version on home video. Overall, the unrated version (which is still more or less a PG-13 movie) is slightly preferred for its extra bibs and bobs, though the dead cat gag is much funnier when left to the audience’s imagination. For a complete rundown of the differences, check out this link.



Video

Drag Me to Hell was a major release from Universal on DVD and Blu-ray in multiple territories. Frankly, I have no problem with the disc that is already sitting on my shelf, but suppose that there’s always room for improvement. For their Collector’s Edition re-release, Scream Factory has gone back to the original 2K digital intermediate scan of the 35mm negatives – for both the unrated and PG-13 cuts – and created a new HD master. They did the same for Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, though that film had substantially more post-production digital grading than Drag Me to Hell and was an early enough Blu-ray release to have really earned an upgrade. The main differences here aren’t as much in clarity as they are in color temperature. In fact, I’m not sure if I notice any change in detail or cleanliness – both transfers are tightly-knit with minimal, natural grain texture and the same dotty, but ignorable compression artifacts (likely some kind of machine noise picked up during the initial scan). More to the point, there’s barely even a difference in the colors and levels. Warmly-tinted sequences are more or less identical, save perhaps the rosiness of some of the Scream disc’s skin tones. You have to look really closely at the cooler sequences, especially the ones that occur towards the end of the film, to see that the colors have a richer look to them – specifically a lavender tint and harsher sharpness throughout the highlights. Otherwise, that’s about it. Both transfers are great, so it’s not like you’re losing anything either way.




Audio

Both cuts of Drag Me to Hell are presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound. This is a particularly aggressive mix that combines modern horror penchant for noisy jump-scares with Raimi’s trademark use of stereo effects and cartoonish sounds. High dynamic range ensures that the impact of the scares is properly heart-stopping and the directional cues work beautifully. Highlights include the subtly mixed sequence where a fly buzzes around Christine’s room and the swirling, screaming demon attack scenes. During the making of Spider-Man 3, Raimi had a falling-out with musical collaborator Danny Elfman and turned to Hellraiser composer Christopher Young (the two had worked together previously on The Gift). The two re-teamed for Drag Me to Hell and struck a solid middle ground between the energy of those earlier Elfman scores and the kind of gothic grandeur that Young excels at. The score is brilliantly integrated into the mix and is just as directionally enhanced as the sound effects.



Extras

Disc One (Theatrical Cut):

Archive extras from Universal’s BD/DVD:


  • Production diaries (35:09, HD) – Extensive behind-the-scenes footage and cast & crew interviews with Raimi, special effects designer Greg Nicotero, director of photography Peter Deming, and actors Allison Lohman, Justin Long, David Paymer, Dileep Rao, and Lorna Raver, hosted by Long.

  • EPK interviews with Raimi, Lohman, and Justin Long (33:37, SD)

  • Trailer and TV Spots


Disc Two (Unrated Cut):

  • To Hell And Back (12:38, HD) – A new Interview with actress Alison Lohman, who talks about Raimi approaching her for the role without an audition, the ever-changing script, renaming her character Christine (instead of Stephanie), her co-stars, and Raimi’s fun, but relentless directing style.

  • Curses! (15:58, HD) – The second Scream exclusive interview is with actress Lorna Raver. This adorable woman had no knowledge of Raimi’s reputation and, because she hadn’t seen a finished script when she got the job, had no idea what she had gotten herself into. Fortunately, she has nothing but wonderful memories of the production.

  • Hitting All The Right Notes (17:10, HD) – The final new interview sees composer Christopher Young recalling his collaborations with Raimi over the years and the challenge of scoring the film’s over-the-top mix of laughter and terror.

  • Still gallery



The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.


11 views

© 2020 Gabe Powers