Sam Raimi's much-anticipated return to horror is the most definitive step so far in reclaiming the genre from the torture-porn monkeys who hijacked it a few years back. With its nostalgic, unreconstructed spookhouse conventions, garish Popsicle colors, and outrageous sight gags, Drag Me to Hell is William Castle by way of EC Comics, with doses of Friz Freleng thrown in for good measure. It's jump-out-of-your-seat scary, laugh-until-you-do-something-embarrassing funny, and take-my-popcorn-because-I-so-don't-want-it-anymore gross. There's also a nice bit of social relevance that anchors Raimi's slimetime feature in its contemporary setting, but that's really just luck—Raimi and his brother Ivan wrote the script long before the mortgage crisis turned loan officers into the Snidely Whiplashes of our day.
Drag Me to Hell's hapless heroine is certainly no Snidely Whiplash, but Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) makes one colossally bad decision, and spends the rest of the movie paying through the nose—and other orifices—for it. Sure, she could have secured an extension for Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), the phlegmy, one-eyed gypsy granny who shows up at Christine's bank one day and literally begs for an extension on her mortgage payment, lest she lose her home of 30 years. Sympathetic Christine wants to help, but she wants a promotion just a little bit more. To prove to her boss (David Paymer) that she's unsentimental enough to occupy the assistant branch manager's fake leather seat, Christine denies Granny Gobhocker the loan extension. And gets a one-way ticket to eternal damnation for her trouble.
After an unforgettable, shriek-inducing parking garage scene full of saliva and office-supply abuse, Christine finds herself on the receiving end of some old-fashioned gypsy vengeance. She has a three-day grace period to find a way to lift the old woman's curse, or it's off to hell courtesy of a singularly unpleasant demon known as the Lamia (not, as the guy two rows in front of me was convinced, the Llama, though that might have been even better).
For the next 80-odd minutes, Raimi repeatedly reminds us how he earned his reputation as a horror demigod. He knows exactly where we expect the scares to be, and he uses those expectations to make sure the audience's collective butt achieves seat clearance on numerous occasions. Reteaming with Evil Dead II cinematographer Peter Deming, Raimi uses long takes, manic zooms, quick cuts, and spooky shadowplay to craft a series of truly nerve-jangling set pieces. Gloriously over-the-top sound effects, complete with disembodied screams, gypsy violins, and diabolical off-screen laughter add to the funhouse feel.
Raimi finds inspiration in a wide range of influences, but Drag Me to Hell's most obvious progenitor is the 1957 British chiller Night of the Demon. It also owes much to the classic Hammer films of the 1950s and '60s, and, like legendary Hammer director Terence Fisher, the Raimi brothers draw heavily from myth, folklore, and fairy tales. Horror fans will appreciate the throwaway in-jokes, like an appearance by the director's own decrepit Oldsmobile.
Lohman turns in an admirable performance as the appealing if bland Christine, and the Mac guy (sometimes referred to as Justin Long) is likeable as her skeptical but loyal boyfriend. It's Raver, though, who will have viewers talking for years to come. The veteran television actress delivers a gleefully manic performance that should secure her a spot in the canon of great horror movie villains.
The film's adolescent-friendly PG-13 rating has been a source of much consternation amongst horror movie snobs. (Yes, even a genre that produced Herschell Gordon Lewis and claims Bruce Campbell as its patron saint has snobs.) The fretting is unnecessary, though; in a cheerful "up yours" to the ratings board, Raimi proves he doesn't need buckets of gore to be disgusting. In one stomach-churning gross-out after the next, he gets the job done with projectile vomiting, squirting eyeballs, slimy dentures, maggots, and any number of viscous bodily fluids.
You can nitpick, if you must. Some have criticized the film for its thin script, but I prefer to think of it as refreshingly devoid of pretense, subtlety, and nuance. The "twist" ending is so plainly telegraphed that only the excessively stupid or profoundly drunk will be surprised by it. It also earns the obligatory "not for all tastes" warning. To say that Raimi repeatedly crosses the boundaries of good taste is misleading, though, as it implies he's aware, or cares, that such boundaries even exist. Drag Me to Hell is many things, but tasteful isn't one of them. And let's not even talk about the film's aversion to political correctness; suffice it to say that gypsies, fortune tellers, and talking goats will be understandably rankled.
If you can stomach it, this is horror cinema at its most deliriously entertaining.