Drag Me to Hell generates the same nervy fright-smiles you see on riders of a rickety rollercoaster clankety-clanking their way toward a plummet. The closer this movie about a banker tormented by a gypsy gets to the edge, the noodlier the nerves and the giddier the giggles.
That’s because the person behind this fabulously freaky funhouse jaunt is no vacant-eyed carnie with his mind on the clock. Oh, no. Sam Raimi is a greased-lightning guy who gladly gooses the juice on this ride, daring passengers to endure a faster pace.
This is the Raimi audiences haven’t seen much on the movie midway since the early 1990s with Darkman and Army of Darkness — generating terror with torque, reveling in destruction and controlling fear with morbid humor and dazzling style. It’s easily his best film in more than a decade, and the brothers Grimm would take pride in this cautionary fable he’s co-written (with brother Ivan) and directed. It’s flooded with formaldehyde, flies and more funky-denture action than seemingly possible.
Raimi is back to using his actors as projectile ragdolls early in Drag Me to Hell — in a prologue that portends doom for anyone who crosses a gypsy. Shifting into the present day, it becomes the story of Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), a formerly pudgy county fair “pork queen” attempting to prune her podunk roots.
Christine has shaken her Southern accent, settled in with a sweet philosophy professor named Clay (Justin Long) and, as a bank’s loan officer, secured a major deal that could get her promoted to assistant manager.
All that changes once Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) walks in, hocking goopy amber phlegm and dissembling her decrepit dentures on Christine’s desk. Pressured by her boss (David Paymer) to “make tough decisions” and a brownnosing competitor (Reggie Lee), Christine opts to deny the begging gypsy a third mortgage extension.
What follows is quintessentially old-school Raimi. It’s a parking-garage assault on Christine by Ganush that pushes the PG-13 as far as the stapled-shut eyes, shattered dentures and gumming attacks will let it. (That’s before formaldehyde and maggots are vomited later. Also, Raver’s 10 minutes of screen time represent a humdinger of dedication to playing a demonic presence.)
Christine barely survives, but death seems preferable to her ensuing madness. Ganush curses Christine to be stalked by the Lamia — a “black goat” spirit who will torment Christine for three days and nights before dragging her to hell. Beset by specters, eruptive bloody noses and a billowing smoke that packs a punch as though Beelzebub were a boxer, Christine tries to stave off the curse and save her life.
Vigorous sound-design from Paul N.J. Ottosson (Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3) maximizes Raimi’s copious jolts. Even by the genre’s stinger-scare staples, the sound effects trigger unease like grinding gears on a Tilt-a-Whirl – immersive, impressive and, daresay, Oscar-worthy. Coupled with Raimi’s trademark tricks of camera perception, Drag Me to Hell constantly, playfully upends the audience’s expectations.
Lohman’s performance does the same thing, albeit with more sleight of hand. It’s astonishing to think this blonde ingénue has headlined nothing more than a tepid Flicka remake. (And she almost didn’t get this part either, originally intended as it was for Juno’s Ellen Page, who dropped out because of scheduling conflicts.)
Christine is someone who confuses her current pursuits for her lifelong personality, and the script neither oversells nor forgets that — even as Christine’s hubris increases when the deadline approaches. As horror films go, it’s not quite the fully rendered female characters of The Descent, but Lohman pulls off the delicate magic of making Christine just barely sympathetic.
How Christine’s self-sufficiency (and deep-fried accent) shows up in the unlikeliest of ways is one of many jet-black touches to love in Drag Me to Hell: zooming in on the twitching, tingling receptors on a fly; the cast-iron faces of Clay’s parents, who disapprove of Christine, in a scene that escalates both horror and social comedy; editor Bob Murawski’s hard cut from a book titled Animal Sacrifices in the Service of Deities to Christine’s cuddly kitty; and Christopher Young’s gypsy-fiddle score that recalls the livelier moments of Danse Macabre.
Moreover, grin at Raimi’s purposeful use of the old-time Universal logos. Drag Me To Hell very much feels like a splotchy-printed back-end to a drive-in double feature. Raimi’s three Spider-Man films (good, overrated, awful — in that order) were a long retreat to count money in an air-conditioned trailer. Here’s hoping he took a deep gulp of that humid air before moving on to No. 4. Clearly, it has done him some good.