'Drag Me to Hell': Why didn't it do better?

Drag_me_to_hell_l Drag Me to Hell is a movie that appeared to have everything going for it at the box office. For one thing, the picture is wicked fun — a clever, gross, scary-funny, delectably unhinged, ingeniously over-the-top carnival of demons. It was directed by Sam Raimi, in a return to his gonzo horror roots, and there’s a considerable Raimi cult out there that was openly salivating at the prospect of a movie made in the cheeky deranged spirit of his Evil Dead films. What’s more, the media got the word out on it, with the majority of reviews (including mine) lavishing praise on Raimi’s inspired, gutbucket achievement. Drag Me to Hell opened on 2,500 screens, and it seemed more or less a sure bet that the film would do at least the kind of business that so many anonymous, run-of-the-mill, cheap-jolt horror films do — and, what’s more, that it had every chance of expanding beyond that core horror audience because the film was actually, you know, good.

But it didn’t turn out that way. The opening weekend grosses were under $16 million — hardly a disgrace, but notably less than the money made by a piece-of-junk-of-the-week like My Bloody Valentine 3D (which opened on the same number of screens). This weekend, the film dropped more than 50 percent (as horror films tend to do), meaning that its run is already winding down, and that the terror and delight of Drag Me to Hell barely translated into the desire of audiences to go out and see it.

What happened? I think that the film’s disappointing box office performance can be chalked up to a single, revealing factor: It was rated PG-13. This is, to say the least, ironic, since it’s likely that the absence of an R rating was part of the studio’s commercial strategy, potentially opening the film up to a younger audience. But it’s a strategy that backfired. To put it in political terms: The PG-13 rating alienated the base.

Even before Drag Me to Hell opened, Raimi was getting flak from some horror junkies for having “compromised” with the milder rating. For the folks who swarm to slasher movies, or to holiday torture freakouts like the Saw films, horror is heavy metal: It’s got to be raw and brutal and extreme or it doesn’t count. To them, the R rating is a bloody scarlet letter that a horror movie wears like a badge of dishonor. The lack of an R made Drag Me to Hell look like a porn film that was too soft-core. In that light, even the overwhelmingly positive reviews may, in a subtle way, have worked against the movie. We critics inadvertently made Drag Me to Hell look like a “quality” film, instead of the “critic-proof” power-tool-and-body-part bash that the core horror audience craves.

Now it’s true, there’s nothing in Drag Me to Hell that can quite match the rubber-room ferocity of that moment from Evil Dead II in which Bruce Campbell — in a performance that has always struck me as a major influence on Jim Carrey — grabs a chainsaw, saws off his own possessed hand, and shouts “Who’s laughing now?” as he drenches himself in an orgiastic shower of blood. Still, Drag Me to Hell comes close: In a sane world, the image of a gypsy crone vomiting maggots onto Alison Lohman’s face would be sick enough for the room. Make no mistake: The movie is intensely scary. But fear itself may now seem like an almost delicate emotion within the debased universe of hardcore horror films. The horror audience doesn’t want to be scared, exactly. It wants to be shocked, ritually brutalized, wowed by sadism. To be scared, you have to imagine yourself in the place of the victim. Whereas in horror films today it’s the monster, unleashing his rock & roll havoc, who’s the secret hero, the one cool enough to rule over a frat house in hell.

addCredit("Melissa Moseley")

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  • jon

    thank you for finally putting that in perspective. I liked the movie, but I knew the ending 30 min before it happened. In all honesty I am hesitant to see “horror” flicks that dont have the guts to go full “R”. I feel this is the biggest reason why, in my eyes at least, terminator failed. I don’t want to see judgment day and war with robots in freaking pg13, not worth it.

  • Sophie Holtz

    I really want to see this film, but it had competition with “Up” and now this week “The Hangover”. I would hope that the good reviews would alienate the way to violent horror lovers, but you’d think the good reviews would attract people who actually like good movies, regardless of whether or not it is a horror movie. But,anyway, I really want to see it, and “Up”. Maybe it would have done better later in the summer.

  • Michael Sacal

    Yet, despite all you say about the R rating, Saw-type movies notwithstanding, most R rated movies today are no different from the PG-13 movies from 20 years ago. They have been toned down.

  • Fred

    um, Sophie Holtz, I’m not too sure I understood that but I think I get what you are trying to say. I don’t think a PG-13 should be a factor–sometimes movies are scarier when there isn’t blood and guts all the time. Sometimes the not knowing is scarier than the knowing.

  • vince eisenson

    It could have been the timing, too. Bloody Valentine came during the cold, harsh time of year when horror movies tend to be released. Maybe folks on a beautiful summer weekend were inclined to see pretty balloons carrying a house instead.

  • Michael

    I have to disagree. I think the sole contributor to the film’s perceived financial failure has to do with its trailer. Every one of my friends who saw the trailer said it looked stupid with a horrible plotline; girl turns down gypsy for a loan, so gypsy curses her. They groaned at how it was trying to be relevant in today’s economic crisis, etc… I think if the trailer had promoted the more campy aspects of the film, and had highlighted its unique, schlocky style, the film would have been more appealing to the mainstream because it would have put on display its director’s talents for hammy horror hijinks!

  • mmendes68

    American public will rush out to see horrible horror films like the Unborn, My bloody Valentine and Haunting in Conneticut. Drag me to Hell is the most fun I have had at the movies in a long time. I do think the pg-13 was off putting. I know a few people who weren’t going to see it Because of that

  • mondo182

    The movie was terrific but I doubt the rating is the major factor in its’ disappointing take. Timing is. They should have released it in the fall were horror movies like Saw and The Grudge thrive. Summer is for spectacle and blockbusters and this season is certainly packed with that. Horror is perfectly suited for the Halloween time period when people are looking for a few chills and spooks. Seriously, how did they not see this coming?

  • Leslie

    I haven’t seen this yet, but I do want to see it, and normally I am a horror movie fan. I think the timing of its release was a bigger factor than its rating (I prefer scary to super-gory any day of the week, it doesn’t have to have both scares & gore for me to enjoy it). It looks really good, but there are just other summer movies that I wanted to see before I spent the time and money seeing this one. If this had come out in the winter or fall I think it would have been higher on my must-see list.

  • Geoff

    A R-rating might have helped, but if they had managed to keep Ellen Page in the lead role and released the movie in October instead of May, this would be a different story.
    Releasing it in the heat of summer, surrounded by Star Trek, Night at the Museum, Terminator, Up and The Hangover was a little bit arrogant and a lot stupid. That doomed it from the start.

  • Barry

    As with other horror films, I wait for the DVD to be released so that I can see the director’s cut of the film if there is one available. Mr. Raimi might have been contractually obligated to deliver a PG-13 rated film. My main question regarding the film is if Bruce Campbell makes another cameo appearance.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t know why there is such a hatred for the PG-13 rating, it’s not like you can’t have a great genre movie that is PG-13 or less, take The Dark Knight for instance. And as for the gorehounds who love the early and late seventies slasher films, do not most of them realize that movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween were originally made with the intentions of getting a PG rating in the respective times? If they were made today as they were in the seventies, they both probably would get PG-13. And that was because John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper were more interested in legitimate scares and stories rather than cheap blood and gore. In the remakes of those two movies the filmmakers went to far, opting out of campfire tales territory to go for cheap psychology to try to explain the origins of the characters and why they kill. It’s not the PG-13 it’s the filmmakers and blood crazy fans that are ruining box office for more legitimate horror films, like Drag Me To Hell.

  • blackbutton

    Yeah, I don’t think people know what a horror film is anymore. Think of Saw 5, which has a ton of gross disgusting moments, but it isn’t really that scary.

  • Nate

    Owen, I think this time you got it all wrong. I haven’t seen the movie yet, I’m planning to sometime this week but that’s exactly where the problem lies: It was released in the heat of May. There is just too many other movies out there that scream “come see me now” and therefore people rushed to those movies instead. Bloody Valentine and Co. got away with bringing more money because they got no competition whatsoewver, they were released on relatively quiet non-summer-wknds. Most horror film that make money during summer are always released around Agust, when all the would-be blockbusters’ dust have setted enough that people don’t have anything else to watch but this horror films.
    It was the release date that hurt it, not the rating.

  • Ciel

    Have you noticed that during the scene in the graveyard, the mud on Alison Lohman’s face keeps changing between shots.

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