Deliciously scary and wickedly tongue-in-cheek, "Drag Me to Hell" marks director Sam Raimi's stupendously welcome return to the genre that first made him a household name. Helming big-budget blockbusters2002's "Spider-Man
," 2004's "Spider-Man 2
," and 2007's "Spider-Man 3
"is well and fine, even impressive, but it is clear while watching his latest old-school ode to demonic spirits and things that go bump in the night that he is having the time of his life. In turn, the goosebump-inducing fun rubs off on the audience, burned many times recently by wimpy PG-13 supernatural fare that don't have a clue how to tell a story, build characters, and still give the viewer something to scream about. "Drag Me to Hell" succeeds at doing all three of these things while carving out a place for itself in the pantheon of classic modern horror films. It's that
Lovely, ambitious Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is a bottle of hidden insecurities who practices with annunciation tapes to rid herself of her southern drawl and is tempted each morning by, but ultimately bypasses, the shop window of fatty desserts that once were her childhood weakness. Working as a loan officer at California's Wilshire Pacific Bank, she is currently vying for the in-contention assistant manager's position, but is accused by boss Mr. Jacks (David Paymer) of being a pushover not able to make "the tough decisions." When ailing elderly gypsy Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) comes into the bank seeking a third extension on her house's mortgage, Christine spots the lady emptying a jar of candies into her purse and decides on the spot that she will make an example out of her latest customer in order to impress her superior. Believing that she has been shamed, Mrs. Ganush places the curse of the half-goat/half-beast Lamia on Christine, ensuring that after three days of being haunted, she will be dragged straight to hell. Christine's psychology professor boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) is skeptical of her claims, but steadfast in his devotion. As the clock ticks down and violent forces inundate her waking hours, an out-of-options Christine seeks the help of spiritual advisor Rham Jas (Dileep Rao), an aficionado of the occult.
Opening with the Universal Studios logo of the early 1980s, "Drag Me to Hell" continues to hearken back to the thriller mainstays of decades' past. The homey art direction and production design, mixing on-location shooting with attractive, atmospheric back-lots, reminds of "Psycho
"- and "Vertigo"-era Alfred Hitchcock. The sight of a cemetery on a storm-swept night, the tombstones rising over a landscape of hills and valleys, is gorgeous to behold. The cinematography by Peter Deming (2007's "Lucky You
") is buoyed by an imaginative flair, using tilted angles, close-ups, and establishing setups with confidence. Two separate shots of bare tree branches encroaching like demonic fingers upon a car driving down the road leap out with their brooding ingenuity. The string-laden music score by Christopher Young (2009's "The Uninvited
") recalls the great Bernard Herrmann and is unmistakably kin to Young's own underrated "Tales from the Hood" effort. At the same time, the classy, off-kilter themes feel totally fresh and never less than inspired. The multilayered sound effects design is also tops, taking the innocuouscreaking gates, tapping fingernails, a buzzing flyand making them as sinister as can be.
Meanwhile, sly, subtle allusions and winks abound. The séance set-piece, which could have gone the way of 2009's atrocious "The Unborn
" and been laughably cornball, instead recalls Robert Wise's elegant "The Haunting" by way of Raimi's own "The Evil Dead." By the time the human participants and sacrificial goat are possessed by the Lamia and floating through the air screaming for Christine's soul, it has segued effortlessly into "Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn" territory. A gross-out scene set in Christine's tool shed approaches Looney Tunes lunacy with the incorporation of an anvil into the action. Keen-eyed viewers will also note that Mrs. Ganush drives the very same 1973 Delta 88 Oldsmobile that Ash drove in "The Evil Dead." The use of a kitten-centric "Hang on, Baby!" wall poster to counter the terror of Christine being hunted in her home by the Lamia is undeniably funny. So, too, is a stop at a psychic's, the cash register prominently looming in the foreground.
"Drag Me to Hell" has a sense of morbid humor about it, no doubt, but writer-director Sam Raimi and co-writer Ivan Raimi are first and foremost out to rattle the nerves of their audience. This they do in spades, overflowing the screen with rich little details that make it all so much more than it would have been were lesser talents behind the scenes. A sequence set in an underground parking garage, with Mrs. Ganush's parked car and handkerchief spelling impending doom, is horrifying, so suspenseful and macabre that it has to be seen to be believed. The attacks in Christine's house, pushing her to limits she doesn't expect to go, are breathlessly conceived. Onslaughts of various bodily fluidsphlegm, projectile nose-bleeding, and even waterfalls of embalming fluidadd to the stomach-churning quotient while amazingly retaining a PG-13 rating.
Alison Lohman (2006's "Flicka
") was not the first actress cast in the role of ChristineEllen Page dropped out prior to filmingbut it is nearly impossible to imagine anyone else playing her. Sympathetic, cute, and eager to please, Christine is developed as a three-dimensional character whom the viewer has fallen in love with before the crap hits the fan. Attempting to put the past behind her is easier said than doneChristine not only must deal with the curse, but also the prejudices and judgments of Clay's mother (Molly Cheek), Mrs. Ganush's granddaughter (Bojana Novakovic), and boss Mr. Jacksand her constant plight to prove that she is better than what her naysayers presume gives the story an additional thematic relevance. The same might be said about the timely portrayal of today's economic woes, and the lengths people will go to better their sometimes make-or-break situations. A fraction of the reason the film is so affecting is due to Lohman's likability and innocence. She could very well rank alongside Jamie Lee Curtis in "Halloween
" as one of the top horror heroines in memory. As Clay, Justin Long (2009's "He's Just Not That Into You
") turns the stock part of supportive boyfriend into someone more textural than that. Long and Lohman are wonderful together, making up a couple one believes truly love each other. And as the catalyst who sets the plot into motion, Lorna Raver is unforgettably chilling as Mrs. Ganush, a woman whose intimidating presence lingers even when she isn't on the screen. Stereotypical or not, Mrs. Ganush exemplifies why gypsies may never be crossed again.
In spite of an ending that logically works but may be a smidge too grim for some, "Drag Me to Hell" remains devilish fun that cinema lovers of all kinds owe themselves to experience. So entertaining it ought to be a crime, the picture proves that not all mainstream, studio-produced horror movies have to be watered-down, insulting, nonsensical, morose, cheap, gore-drenched, predictable, or all of the above. In a day and age when the best genre works are receiving poor theatrical distribution, in some cases being shipped straight-to-DVD (i.e. "Trick 'r Treat
," "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane
," "Martyrs," "Vinyan," "Eden Lake," "Calvaire"), "Drag Me to Hell" not only has been awarded a wide release, but might actually have a chance for some deserved recognition. That director Sam Raimi is a master of the genre goes without saying. We should all be happy to be his puppets.