1. The Anti-Diary of the Dead
The prodigal son trope one finds in nearly every review of DMtH is a little deceptive. While the film does indeed mark Sam Raimi's return to horror, it oddly implies that he was, before the lure of Hollywood superstardom steered him wrong, predominantly a horror director and that he's been away from the mater genre for long time.
In fact, less than a third of Raimi's directorial efforts have been horror films. The characterization of Raimi as a horror director has more to do with horror fandom's perpetual surly provincialism than any full assessment of Raimi's directorial career. As for Raimi's 40 years of wandering the Hollywood desert, the length of the break between Army of the Dead and DMtH is just a couple years longer than the break between Army and Evil Dead 2. Or the break between ED2 and the original evil dead, for that matter. Raimi just doesn't make many horror movies and he certainly doesn't make them that often.
That said, a comparison between another "return of the master" flick yields some interesting results. Much as Raimi's latest was given a strangely indier-than-thou moral gloss and framed as the director returning to a simpler, purer style of filmmaking, George Romero – perhaps more validly considered a horror master – was thought to have lost his way in the big budget excesses of Land of the Dead, and diary was framed in terms of a sort of aesthetic purification. Both films were linked, either explicitly or implicitly, to the franchises that made the director's names.
But Drag Me to Hell works and Diary of the Dead is a dog. When it came time to see if Romero still had the juice, he came up dry. Raimi, however, took a swing at something easily within his wheelhouse and connected. The difference is, I think, the latter's commitment to making a fun film. An entertaining, if mostly silly and forgettable, spookshow of jump scares and slime FX, Drag never lapses into tedious lecturing or drinks the cool-aid of its own mythology.
2. The First Lynch the Banker Movie of the New Depression
In the early days of Depression 1.0, Hollywood was divided over just how to handle the class distinctions the economic crisis brought into plain sight. Early filmmakers treated it as fodder for comedy. The rich, while foolish, just needed a good Godfrey to straighten them out. As the crisis wore on and then shaded into war, however, the bubble-headed wealthy began to yield way to poisoned-minded, literally twisted predators of the Mr. Potter variety.
Though Raimi claims to have written Drag Me to Hell before the current economic crisis, it is virtually impossible not to see a reflection of our current crisis in the character of Christine Brown, the loan officer who is, in the end, dragged to aigtch eeee double hockey sticks. The plot, for those who have not seen it, involves a loan officer who denies a gypsy woman (who lives in modern Los Angeles) a third extension on her mortgage payment. The gypsy woman falls to her knees, begins kissing the skirt of the loan officer, begs Ms. Brown to reconsider. Christine panics and she calls security. Later that night, the gypsy woman mugs her in the parking garage near the bank and places a curse upon her. Ring-like, Christine will be tormented for three days by a demonic spirit. At the end of the tormenting process, she'll be offed and dragged, well, you know.
Raimi has actually said that he wanted to make sure that Christine's "crime" was disproportionate to the punishment she faced. This was necessary, he claims, in order to ensure viewer sympathy with her.
I believe, however, this doesn't give his character enough credit. Christine's "crime" is not a minor act; it's no crime at all. It isn't, I think, even a moral infraction. Some critics have decided that Christine is an avatar for the wildly irresponsible financial institutions that have led us into the current financial meltdown. This shows both a profoundly limited understanding of the financial monkey business that took place on Wall Street and grotesquely stunted notion of morality. According to the film, the bank's handled the gypsy's mortgage for several years. By defaulting on payments twice and then asking for third extension, it is the gypsy who is acting in bad faith. She was happy to take the bank's money, using her house as collateral. But now that she can't hold up her end of the deal, she wants the bank to essentially give her a free pass. She wants the bank to be okay with unilaterally breaking a contract. Christine suggests to alternatives to the gypsy's financially untenable situation, both of which are rejected by the gypsy out of pride – a pride she then throws away to beg for help, a pride she then accuses Christine of stealing.
In contrast, what was going on in at various banks and other financial institutions was that loan officers, not unlike Christine but on a much larger scale, were bending the loan guidelines to quickly store up the mortgages as assets that could then be used as the basis for derivatives – a sort of pseudo-insurance in which parties essentially make bets on whether or not loans will default. In theory, the bank doesn't want the loan to default, because then they get the loan payments and the derivative payments, without ever having to pay anything out except the original loan. In practice, the short-term gain on derivatives was so attractive that banks rushed to make as many housing loans as they could, taking insane risks on truly bad loans. These bad loans were then packaged up as more derivative fodder. When the crappy loans feel through, not only were the banks out the original loan, but they also had to pay off the derivative bets. These problems were further compounded by what we now understand to be the deliberate falsification of the value of the assets at the base of the derivatives.
If that second part is convoluted, here's the short story: If banks had been rigorous about administering their loans – which includes not giving loans to people who can't afford to pay them back and refusing to carry the burden of potentially toxic assets in the form of shaky loans – then none of this crap would have gone down. If Wall Street had been more like Christine Brown, we wouldn't have the current financial crisis. But Drag Me to Hell touches a populist nerve by showing what Americans have always secretly felt: Debt (if not credit, which we love like crack) is a conspiracy of heartless bankers. We enjoy making beds, but we sure to hate to lie in them.
If the lightly likeable Drag Me to Hell gets a footnote in film history, it might we be as the opening shot in what I can only imagine will be a slowly growing stream on increasingly shrill populist screeds against the evils of banking.
3. The Hollywood Evil Dead
While Drag Me to Hell definitely aspires to the slapstick spirit of Raimi's Evil Dead flicks, there's something bloodless (in a literal and emotional way) about the undertaking. The film feels like Raimi is copying his earlier work. Instead of evoking the spirit of the Evil Dead films, he makes contextless winks and nods to his fanbase. References to cabins in the woods followed with the line "there's trees, you'll love it" are meant as sops to the insider.
This is faded-copy-of-the-original feeling is further reinforced by the PG-13 bloodlessnes of the film. Other than a particularly violent projectile nosebleed, there's not much in this film to remind us of the fact that Raimi once used a literal geyser of blood for a sight gag. Certainly, this isn't to suggest that "real horror needs extreme bloodshed" or some such. Raimi was always more goofy than gory. Rather, I think it is a sign of how happy Raimi is to repackage his old material as mainstream stuff. Raimi's still big on geysers, but now they're CGI'ed puke-goo or a vomited up cat.
Finally, there are the product placements. BMW, iPhones, and even Mrs. Fields Cookies get bizarrely intrusive close ups. Despite the theme of "returning to the purity of horror" theme, it seems Raimi's picked up some particularly unseemly mainstream habits and the return to horror didn't help him shed them.