It's easiest to say what Drag Me to Hell (2009) is not. It is not a slasher flick. It is not an exercise in torture porn, seeking to titillate or outrage with the sadistic administration of pain. There are gory scenes, and, particularly in the "unrated director's cut" included as an option in next Tuesday's DVD, there are such cover-your-eyes-and-say-yeew shots as an old woman spewing worms into the heroine's mouth. (The heroine is having a nightmare.) But it's most concerned with suspense, spookiness and often comical frights, like a haunted-house film crossed with The Wolf Man and goosed by Sam Raimi.
You may know Raimi, the film's director, from the Spider-Man movies, or from his earlier work on Evil Dead, Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness , which pitted Bruce Campbell's character against the most ferocious of demons. Raimi delights in over-the-top special effects, but his goal in Drag Me to Hell is primarily to entertain those who are capable of saying "wow" rather than "get me out of here" while watching an insanely choreographed battle in a parked car.
Hell hath no fury like a homeowner scorned. Read Liam Lacey's film review
Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), who sort of resembles Pam from The Office , is an upwardly mobile bank employee who, in trying to live up to the tough standards of her boss (David Paymer), denies a mortgage extension to Mrs. Ganush, an old Hungarian woman (Lorna Raver). Bad move. Ganush attacks Brown in that parked car and places a curse on the younger woman. Demons will haunt her for three days, after which they will, yes, drag her to hell. Brown seeks to break the curse. Her comic-relief boyfriend is skeptical. He's played by Justin Long, the Mac in those PC-and-Mac commercials, which makes it funny, presumably intentionally, that in his first scene he can't fix a simple piece of office machinery.
In a behind-the-scenes extra, Long says he is playing what in most movies would be the "girlfriend" role, standing around while the hero drives the action. Lohman's character is the driving force here, sweet but able to hold her own in a brawl. It's no coincidence that women make up a large percentage of the modern horror audience, drawn by the tough, resourceful females in lead roles.
Horror films are everywhere on DVD. Anchor Bay, a label that specializes in the genre, will release two of them next week. In the slasher-whodunit iMurders (2008), online chatroom users are picked off one by one; an alternative ending gives the villain a comeuppance. The much-derided slasher flick Happy Birthday to Me (1980) is of interest because the director is J. Lee Thompson, who in more rewarding days made The Guns of Navarone and the original Cape Fear . It boasts an orchestral score reportedly omitted from an earlier DVD release.
If you're in the mood for a buffet, and have a strong stomach for truly gruesome scenes and nudity, the 2008 documentary Not Quite Hollywood is a lively look at Australia's crude sex-and-horror exploitation films of the 1970s and early 80s. Susan Penhaligon recalls making the 1978 film Patrick . "I think when Robert Helpmann ate the frogs, we were into a different genre there." Yes, Robert Helpmann, the great dancer-choreographer who played Coppelius in The Tales of Hoffman and the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang . There are all sorts of ways to be dragged to hell.