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Sam Raimi's Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is right around the corner and, in true MCU fashion, we're still not sure exactly what to expect. Yes, we know Doctor Strange teams up with Wanda Maximoff and America Chavez to battle multi-versal mayhem and evil versions of himself, but there's still MI6-level secrecy surrounding the summer blockbuster.
But to get ready for Strange's first direct sequel, you should revisit one of Raimi's most underrated and best films: Drag Me to Hell. It is arguably the best film to watch in preparation for Raimi's superhero movie return, despite it being a less than orthodox choice.
Released in 2009 and co-written by Raimi, Drag Me to Hell marked the filmmaker's first all-out horror project as director in nearly two decades, and his first non-Spider-Man film since Paramount's The Gift. After making three of the biggest movies of the 2000s, Raimi wanted to understandably scale back, to get back into the nuts and bolts of genre storytelling that made him a filmmaker in the first place. So, he turned to a story he'd crafted with his brother, Ivan: A simple morality tale hiding out within the structure of a terrifying supernatural horror movie, one that culminates in a gut punch of a twist ending.
Drag Me to Hell's premise is blissfully simple: Christine (Alison Lohman) wants to prove to her boss that she is worthy of the promotion at the bank where she works, so she demonstrates decisiveness by rejecting the loan extension of a poor old woman (Lorna Raver) who can't afford her mortgage. The woman freaks out and places a curse on poor Christine that gives her three days left to live. After that time expires, a demon will arrive to do exactly what the title says. And, in the interim, otherworldly scares and threats will push into Christine's worlds and upend her entire existence, one classic Raimi set piece at a time.
So you have a ticking clock, a looming supernatural threat, and all the magical shenanigans that come with that. The scares start early when the old woman invades Christine's dreams, turning them and her bedroom into nightmares. And, of course, there is the film's best (and most memorable) set piece: The absolutely unhinged parking garage fight between Christine and the old woman, the place where the curse originates. It makes for great horror movie fun, but aside from the magical element, what makes this a good gateway to a Doctor Strange movie?
Raimi's films don't exist in a vacuum. He's a guy who pours everything he learned from the previous project into the next one. In that respect, Drag Me to Hell is full of visual influences and directorial choices that stem from Raimi's time on the Spider-Man trilogy. The classic Raimi dynamism is there in the camera movements, but it often feels like he layers it even thicker this time around, particularly when we're watching Christine in her apartment or at the bank where she works. Raimi doesn't just follow her movements. He moves around her, pushing in with lightning-fast dollies and kinetic compositions that keep up the tension by constantly reinforcing the sinister forces at work. Each fresh hell Christine experiences is one that the audience is caught in the middle of as well, as the camera swirls and swoops through her world in ways that represent the evil that targets her soul.
In the same way that the visual style is an outgrowth of everything Raimi has worked on leading up to Drag Me to Hell, so too is the storytelling. The filmmaker who broke through with the visual and narrative extremes of the Evil Dead series has now gone through the family-friendly blockbuster process, and sees even more appeal in PG-13 genre films than he did before. Drag Me to Hell becomes a PG-13 experience, removed from the gory heights of Evil Dead, sure, but it retains all of that film's tonal touches and visual extremes. But this is a more refined and experienced Raimi, applying all of his considerable knowledge and talent as a genre filmmaker to a compelling and simple narrative about a woman on the run from that which there is no escape from.
Whether he's choreographing a fight scene that mostly takes place within the confines of a cramped car's front seat, or letting loose with a gross-out dinner party sequence, Raimi pushes the limits of the PG-13 rating as close to R-rated territory as possible, without crossing over or compromising his macabre vision. That approach seems to be somewhat manifesting in Multiverse of Madness, judging by certain sequences glimpsed in trailers. Moreover, Raimi's approach in Hell to his lead character's plight, someone forced to confront the consequences of their actions in the most supernatural of ways, is also at play with Strange in the upcoming sequel.
Beyond all of that, though, the thing that makes Drag Me to Hell an interesting conceptual and thematic doorway to Multiverse of Madness is how well Raimi balances the familiar with the new. There's a comfort in that familiarity, a sense that you might think you know where things are going. Then Raimi hits you with a dervish of a movie, a film featuring everything from a possessed talking goat to a fight scene that features a ruler and a stapler as primary weapons. Then there's the ending, which manages to be both unexpectedly dark and darkly comedic, in true Raimi fashion.
Drag Me to Hell is a movie Raimi's Spider-Man clout willed into existence, and did so by delivering a modern horror classic that's both visually stunning and narratively surprising. It's an unapologetic, all-go-no-quit thrill ride of a movie, and that's the kind of energy it feels like he's bringing to Multiverse of Madness. There are worse things that could happen to the MCU. Raimi injecting it with a strong dose of all that he brings to the table is not one of them.
So go watch Drag Me to Hell, because Drag Me to Hell rules.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness hits theaters May 6.