Drag Me to Hell marks director Sam Raimi's return to his roots in prankish horror after spending much of the past decade working on the enormously successful Spider-Man series, and longtime fans of the Evil Dead auteur will be relieved to know that he hasn't lost his knack for giddy-good scares or his adolescent love of all things slimy and gross. The budget is certainly higher than Raimi's days of shooting 16mm with college buddies in a cabin in the Michigan woods and the lead actors are at least moderately well known, but for all the Hollywood gloss laid over its EC Comics-style moral that you can never outrun your sins, Drag Me to Hell doesn't seem to have any goal other than to goose you and scare you and make you squirm and laugh and laugh at your own laughter.
Alison Lohman stars as Christine Brown, a young woman who has worked her way up the social ladder from overweight Midwestern farm girl to stylish loan officer at a California bank with an eye on the recently vacated assistant manager position. She's too kind-hearted for her own good, though, which is why her manager (David Paymer) has to push her to make "tough decisions," which she disastrously chooses to test-drive in the case of Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), an elderly gypsy who comes in one day asking for a third extension on her home loan. After Christine "shames" her by refusing her the loan and rejecting her anguished pleas for help, Mrs. Ganush curses her, essentially damning her to an eternity in hell, but not before she is tormented for three days by the Lamia, the demon charged with doing the dragging. Christine's skeptical boyfriend, a psychology professor (Justin Long), doesn't believe any of this (of course--why would he?), and he can't help but roll his eyes when she enlists the aid of Rham Jas (Dileep Rao), a dour New Age fortune teller who correctly surmises her predicament.
There are a few twists and turns along the way, but the basic setup (by the director and his brother/cowriter Ivan) is all Raimi needs to unleash his go-for-broke aesthetic, which gleefully pounds away at you with variations of the same funhouse scare tactics. The miracle here is that Raimi keeps it fresh and invigorating; even after Christine has been stalked and assaulted multiple times by the same creeping shadows and mysterious gusts of wind (not to mention shock cuts to Mrs. Ganush's twisted, leering scream), the scares still have the same rush and leave you breathlessly asking for more. Raimi cranks the tension and doesn't really care if the wire snaps, which it eventually does in a hyperkinetic sance that you know will go bad as soon as someone brings in a bleating goat. And go bad it does, eventually turning into a shrieking preview of Raimi's much-rumored-about Evil Dead remake and/or sequel.
Raimi is poking fun at our own insecurities and playing them for all they're worth, and he has a knack for knowing when not to show something (such as the Lamia, which remains a shadowy figure of hooves and claws at the edge of the frame) and when to rub something in your face (there are quite a few ewwww moments of gross-out delirium, including popping eyeballs, a mouthful of maggots, and some of the nastiest dentures ever put on screen, all of which is somehow kept in PG-13 check). There is little in the comic-horror catalog that Raimi leaves untouched (Horrific dream? Check! Stalked in an empty parking garage? Check! Trapped in a flooding grave with a corpse? Check!), and for good measure he also sprinkles the film with references that his longtime fans will savor, such Mrs. Ganush driving a beat-up 1973 Oldsmobile, the car that Bruce Campbell (who is noticeably absent) drove in The Evil Dead (1982). It's good, malicious fun that revels in its own absurdity, lack of lofty ambitions, and determination to drag you down with it--although most people who venture into a movie with a title like Drag Me to Hell are probably more than happy to go willingly.
Copyright 2009 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright Universal Pictures
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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