While watching Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell (2009) a smile of recognition crept across my face. Here was another fine adaptation of M.R. James’ classic tale of terror “Casting the Runes.”
James’ short story is not credited, but the plot elements are there: a powerful occultist is offended and lays a curse on their tormentor, unseen forces begin to torment the victim, then demonic forces threaten them directly, and finally the victim come to realize that the only way they can escape destruction is to transfer the curse back to its originator by passing the object used to create the curse.
M. R. James was one of the finest authors of Victorian ghost stories. Generally, his stories revolved around a scholar doing research in a remote village or ancient cathedral leading to the uncovering and unleashing of some dark force of evil. The best moments in James’ fiction are small moments of suggested horrors, such as this example from “Casting the Runes”:
“At last he produced a series which represented a little boy passing through his own park – Lufford, I mean – in the evening. Every child in the room could recognize the place from the pictures. And this poor boy was followed, and at last pursued and overtaken, and either torn to pieces or somehow made away with, by a horrible hopping creature in white, which you saw first dodging about among the trees, and gradually it appeared more and more plainly. Mr Farrer said it gave him one of the worst nightmares he ever remembered and what it must have meant to the children doesn’t bear thinking of.”
The power of suggestion was splendidly carried forward in the most noted adaption of James’ “Casting the Runes:” Night of the Demon (1957), directed by Jacques Tourneur. Night of the Demon is a masterful example of the use of lighting, sound, editing, and smart screenwriting to build suspense and generate a mood of horror. This isn’t surprising, since Tourneur had previously directed some of Val Lewton’s subtle horror masterpieces (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man). Famously, the producers inserted model shots of a demon after shooting was completed, which Tourneur and others thought ruined the subtle effects originally intended. I am not convinced of this, except in a few moments featuring clumsy special effects. I think the power of the key scenes, as originally shot, still carry the weight of the film.
Raimi pays tribute to Night of the Demon by setting his final scene in a railway station and at some points in Drag Me to Hell he actually relies on suggestion rather than gore or pyrotechnics. But it would expecting too much from the genius behind The Evil Dead (1981) to not feature projectile eyeballs or explosions of maggots. Drag Me to Hell delivers good scary fun, but remains in the general modern mainstream of effects laden shock fests.
The full text of “Casting the Runes” may be read here: