DRAG ME TO HELL (Mania.com)

By:Rob Vaux
Review Date: Thursday, May 28, 2009


When they see the PG-13 rating on Drag Me to Hell, horror fans may fear that Sam Raimi has lost his exploitation-film touch. Not to worry. The rating itself is a bad joke, overlooking some of the most intense and horrific movie imagery in recent years solely because there's no nudity or swearing. Kudos to Raimi and company for jobbing the system so completely as to once more render it meaningless. And shame yet again on the MPAA for kow-towing to studio commercial demands--revealing for the umpteenth time what a spineless gang of parasites they really are. (Way to protect America's families, fellas. Be sure to stick this one on the lower racks at the Wal-Mart where tiny five-year-old hands can reach it.)
As for the film itself, it constitutes a full-bore throwback to the Raimi of old--the one who delighted in chasing Bruce Campbell through the woods with a steadicam and treated the cinematic medium as the coolest pinball game ever conceived. Big Bruce is nowhere to be seen here, but that yellow '73 Oldsmobile is on full display, driven by a gypsy crone who curses nice girl Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) as revenge for foreclosing on her home. Drag Me to Hell also features sentient crockery, spooky figures at windows and periodic boo-gotcha moments delivered with soundtrack cranked to 11. Evil Dead 4? Not quite, but you can see it from here.
Raimi seems acutely aware that most people these days know him more for Spider-Man than for the horror classics which made his career. Yet while he cheerfully celebrates his roots here, he stops just shy of shoving our noses in it: characteristic of his deceptively confident dance between extreme horror and Three Stooges farce. When truly frightening spirits arise to menace our fair heroine, you just know there's an anvil waiting somewhere for her to drop on their heads: a balance few filmmakers can even contemplate, let alone execute.
Granted, Christine's no Ash. She can barely match wits with her feckless rivals at the bank where she works, let alone the armies of perdition. Her wet noodle of a boyfriend (Justin Long) supports her, but struggles to understand the nature of the problem: namely, that the gypsy woman's curse will send her soul shrieking to hell in three days unless she can find a way around it. In the meantime, a creature known as a lamia--your basic goat-headed abomination of the underworld--begins tormenting her every waking moment, giving Raimi ample opportunity to jump out at us from dark places. Copious special effects appear in the service of simple and elegant horrors: shadows forming clawed hands which reach out for Christine, floating handkerchiefs that crawl down her throat, and a pesky fly which should make for more sleepless nights than any legion of gibbering boogeymen.
Raimi deploys it all as if his years at the top of the Hollywood food chain never existed. Though glossier and more polished than the Evil Dead films, Drag Me to Hell adroitly resurrects the gleeful anarchy lying at that series' core. It also surrounds the scares with a fast-paced framework that allows for plenty of EC Comics twists, reveling in grotesquery even as it snickers up its sleeve at the absurdity of it all. Lohman proves an aptly game lead, allowing the director to have fun at her expense while playing Christine's increasingly desperate moral compromises with an appropriately straight face.
Horror movies of this ilk have been few and far between of late. The post-9/11 crop veered towards abattoirs and torturous sadism, daring audiences to see how much they could take before their better natures demanded they leave the theater. The movement produced its share of decent films, but the overkill has sucked much of the joy out of the genre. There is no director more qualified than this one to bring it back: to slap some William Castle joy buzzers on the theater seats and remind the audience not to take it all so seriously. Drag Me to Hell displays a few stumbling points (the business with the kitten is uncalled for, no matter how intentionally ridiculous it may be), and a few of the winks become too sly for their own good, but having been away from horror so long, we can forgive Raimi if he needs a moment or two to get his bearings.
For all their protestations to simple popcorn fun, most summer movies groan under the weight of their own pretense. Drag Me to Hell carries no such burden: eager to remind us how much of a gas this time of year should be.

Mania Grade: B+
Movie: Drag Me to Hell
Reviewed Format: Theatrical
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hr & 39 min.
Starring: Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver, Dileep Rao, David Paymer, Reggie Lee and Adriana Barraza
Written By: Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi
Directed By: Sam Raimi
Distributor: Universal Pictures