In the "Evil Dead" series undead spirits called back to the living by the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis terrorized Ash (Bruce Campbell) and his compatriots. For "Drag Me to Hell" Sam Raimi has conjured up an even more frightening villain: mortgage lenders.
Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is a bank loan officer vying with a brown-nosing colleague for a promotion to assistant manager. Her boss (David Paymer) tells her that if she wants the job she has to learn how to make the tough decisions. Fortunately for Christine, and for the story, a tough decision walks into the bank in the form of Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), an aging gypsy woman who begs for extra time to pay her mortgage. The normally soft-hearted Christine denies the extension for which she is, of course, cursed to hell. If only we could have sent Mrs. Ganush after the hedge fund managers who brought down Bear Stearns.
With her non-descript boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) in tow, Christine eventually learns the details of the gypsy curse. She will be tormented by a malevolent demon called a Lamia for the next two days and, on the third day, she will then be dragged to hell. Thus the title. She spends the rest of the film trying to undo the curse with the help of a medium (Dileep Rao) who may or may not be a scam artist.
It's typical of Raimi (who co-wrote the film with his brother Ivan) to complicate the good guy/bad guy dynamic or, in this case, the good gal/bad gal one. Mrs. Ganush ultimately turns into one evil witch but at first she is somewhat sympathetic as a victim of the recession now faced with eviction. But the writer/director further muddies the waters. Even in her first scene, Mrs. Ganush is not just a sweet, innocent supplicant. In a classic display of Raimi grotesque, she removes her dentures and gums all the hard candy on Christine's desk. I wouldn't give her a loan either.
Likewise Christine isn't a simple heroine. While her punishment hardly fits her crime, Christine isn't just a poor victim of forces beyond her control. She's a hungry dog trying to climb the corporate ladder and she'll do what it takes to survive both in business and in life. There's one action in particular that Christine undertakes in the middle of the film that stretches audience sympathy past its straining point. And despite it being a violation of one of the most fundamental rules of story-telling, Raimi somehow makes it funny as hell. I will say no more.
The plot is pretty silly, but Raimi films are always more about the tour-de-force sequences than the story. Fortunately, "Drag Me to Hell" features several of these. A parking garage fight between Christine and Mrs. Ganush shares some of the spirit of Ash's battle with the pit-bitch in "Army of Darkness" though sans chainsaw. It also sets the tone for the movie which is much more comedy than horror. A séance scene is also inspired and I'm willing to go on record by claiming that it features the best demon-possessed goat you will see all year long.
Like everyone else on the planet, Alison Lohman is no Bruce Campbell, but she proves to be more than game as she is beaten and tossed around like a rag doll time and again, slamming face first into furniture or getting bonked on the head by a giant crucifix. There are no geysers of blood in "Drag Me to Hell" but the bodily fluids flow freely. Poor Christine, of course, is on the receiving end of most of it, most graphically when she gets a hefty dose of embalming fluid poured down her gullet after she crashes a funeral and crashes into the recently deceased.
Most welcome of all is Raimi's refusal to turn "Drag Me to Hell" into another CGI-fest, relying instead of some of the more traditional but still innovative effects that made the "Evil Dead" films so great. It's amazing how much mileage you can get out of an acrobatic camera, canted angles, some good old fashioned make-up effects (by Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger, and team) and a couple of shrieking possessed people suspended on wires. It's exciting to see a film released in 2009 that benefits from the vitality of practical effects like these along with the judicious use of digital effects when appropriate.
The first two-thirds of the film are simply a blast. The final act is marred by a painfully obvious twist that fails to be as ironic as intended. Still even this final portion of the film is so skillfully directed that you can almost forgive the awkward plotting. Raimi understands something that marks him as one of the true master of the horror genre: grave-digging is inherently funny. Seriously, when isn't it?
"Drag Me to Hell" isn't going to give you nightmares, but it's not meant to. There are shocks along the way, many of which rely on a concatenation of horror clichés, but when these clichés are placed in the hands of someone as gifted as Raimi they work beautifully. If you're a die-hard who only considers the first two "Evil Dead" films to be true vintage Raimi, then "Drag Me to Hell" doesn't quite meet that lofty standard. But it's a welcome return to the genre that made him great and the wit that separated the "ED" films from darn near everything else is on full display. Very funny and very fun.