Owen Gleiberman
June 07, 2009 AT 09:24 PM EDT

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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