Director Sam Raimi made a triumphant, critically acclaimed return to the horror movie fold with Drag Me To Hell: a back to basics, deliberately schlocky campfire tale of evil old crones, demonic spirits and a central character who may actually be guilty of the misfortunes befalling her. Having diluted his personal touch with the Spiderman trilogy, here was a throwback to his brilliantly inventive debut The Evil Dead: energetic camerawork and a blurring of the divide between slapstick comedy and terror. Luminous Alison Lohman takes the central role as loan officer Christine who refuses help to a gypsy woman, Mrs Ganush (Lorna Raver) about to be evicted from her home, on the grounds it may help her with a promotion. Christine's fatal mistake lies in underestimating her enemy: Ganush places a curse on her which results in the unfortunate culprit being dragged to hell after days of torment at the hands of a monstrous spirit called the Lamia. Christine is forced to rely on loving boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) and a psychic (Dileep Rao) to save her soul.
Drag Me To Hell is a bracing, refreshing change of tack for contemporary horror, relying on a talented director's flair with camerawork, effects and especially sound to frighten the audience. The difference is, Raimi makes the frights entertaining rather than repulsive (although there are several delightfully revolting set-pieces; one even involves flying eyeballs). Another area of crucial importance was his decision to once again employ Christopher Young, arguably the greatest horror composer of the moment. Every time Young approaches a project with horrific tendencies, he's able to bring something new and exciting to the table, and Drag Me To Hell is no different.
But the real pleasure of the score lies in its old-fashioned principles. It's a quintessential horror effort, Young drawing on past glories like the Hellraiser movies, Species and Bless the Child, plus his vast understanding of the genre, to produce one of the most sheerly entertaining scores in many years. As with many great soundtracks, it's built around a powerful and memorable main theme, while also drawing on all the orchestral might at Young's disposal in the incidental sections. In-keeping with his previous work, the composer's creativity in distorting an orchestra to suggest monstrous forces is wonderfully inventive.
Said theme, simply entitled "Drag Me To Hell" kicks things off in fantastically portentous and menacing fashion, a deceptively attractive solo violin overlaid with thunderous orchestral mayhem and a massive chanting choir. It bears much in common with his celebrated theme for Hellbound: Hellraiser II. Young's intelligence in denoting the gypsy influence through the presence of the violin also mustn't be overlooked. "Mexican Devil Disaster" (actually the prologue in the film) introduces the first of many avant-garde pieces that indicate the encroaching horror of the Lamia, frightening orchestral stingers kicking off plenty of discordant string work. Later on, "Black Rainbows", "Bealing Bells With Trumpet" and "Buddled Brain Strain" are simply as terrifying as modern film music gets, all the while being perfectly listenable and intelligently structured.
Where Young differs from the standard horror composer is in the intelligent sense of emotion running through his work; at no point does "Drag Me To Hell" come across as unstructured noise. After the opening burst of terror, he sensibly takes things down a peg or two and introduces a lovely, bittersweet piano theme for Christine herself in "Tale of a Haunted Banker", one that brims with homely innocence (those who have seen the film will better understand Young's astute scoring of the character). It's a gorgeous juxtaposition to the increasing horror, getting beautiful workouts in "Familiar Familiars" and "Brick Dogs a la Carte". Just as in scores such as "Copycat", Young increases a listener's involvement by placing them on a knife's edge between melody and menace.
There are also several extraordinary moments of sustained, monumental terror, beginning with "Lamia" that, after a discordant beginning, explodes in a twisted calliope rhythm before leading into a powerful action section, brass and choir going full bore. Young's wonderfully twisted sense of humour is clearly in tandem with that of his director, and it makes the score a pleasure to listen to, surprises lurking around every corner. The lengthy "Loose Teeth" is simply the composer at his most demonically creative, adding layer upon chilling layer of orchestral and vocal effects (including wonderfully vile ones contributed by Young himself) as he underscores the blackly comic confrontation between Christine and Ganush in a parking garage.
The most astonishing track is "Auto Da Fe", a fantastically frightening and powerful piece that will certainly have horror fans grinning in delight at the pipe organ barrage in the first half, before wiping it off their face with the relentlessly uncomfortable brass effects in the second. As an example of horror film music at its finest, it simply doesn't get better. The plaintive rendition of Christine's theme at the close then leads into a terrific, extended variation on the main theme in "Concerto to Hell", allowing the gypsy violin to rise to exquisite heights before corrupting it with increasingly hellish orchestral and choir as the score reaches its breathless conclusion.
It's a score designed to leave one drained but exhilarated – much like the film it accompanies. And, just like the film it accompanies, Christopher Young's score is a coup for robust, old-fashioned, intelligence, crafted with care and attention. The theme is guaranteed to become a staple in the canon of classic horror movie themes in the years to come, but rather than lazily relying on that, Young conjures up a tour de force from start to finish. An outstanding horror score that makes one dread the Lamia knocking at the door...