Sam Raimi returns to his shlock roots, but with much higher production values, in this old-fashioned horror flick about gypsy curses and terrifying demons. “Drag Me To Hell” doesn’t boast a plot to match its hilariously over-the-top title, but it offers enough scares and chuckles to make for an enjoyably ghoulish cinematic roller-coaster ride, even if the last lap doesn’t quite measure up to the earlier ones.
The heroine is sweet-faced, demure Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), a loan officer at the neighborhood branch of a bank in Los Angeles. She seems to have a happy life with a loving boyfriend, Clay (Justin Long), a considerate psychology professor (though, we later learn, she was a pudgy kid and her mother’s an alcoholic). And she’s angling for the position of assistant manager that her boss (David Paymer) will bestow on either her or her ambitious, unscrupulous colleague Stu Rubin (Reggie Lee).
Deciding not to seem a pushover while looking to nab the promotion, Christine nixes a home loan extension for an aged, bedraggled gypsy named Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) despite the old lady’s plea that she’ll lose her house without it. Infuriated, the woman attacks Christine in the parking garage, and after an absurdly prolonged fight, places a curse on her (or more precisely, on a button torn from her coat that she then returns as a carrier of her doom). Christine’s so rattled that she visits a strip-mall psychic named Rham Jas (Dileep Rao), who instantly perceives that she’s in the grip of dark forces.
The situation quickly worsens when Christine’s attacked in her house by some hideous force (in a nod to Jacques Tourneur, the horned creature is shown only as a shadow), and returns for advice to Jas. His instructions lead the poor girl to an act that encapsulates the picture’s mixture of black humor and gruesomeness—it involves Christine’s pet kitten—but it proves insufficient to lift the curse, so the two decamp to the residence of mystic Shaun San Dena (Adriana Barraza) who, as a prologue has already shown, did battle with the beast once before (a nod to William Peter Blatty, no doubt). But in the end Christine has to resort to an extreme form of self-help to try to outsmart Mrs. Ganush, who has died in the meantime, and avoid being literally dragged to hell by the demon. It should come as no surprise that a cemetery is involved.
Raimi and his brother Ivan, who co-wrote the script, resort to a bevy of tricks to generate both laughs and shudders. They love creepy sounds and swirls of wind, and flies—the devil, after all, is the insects’ lord—as well as something as simple as a flying kerchief with malevolent intent. All the devices give the writer-director the opportunity to show off his technical dexterity and flair for the bizarre in much the same fashion as he did in the old “Evil Dead” pictures, though far more slickly this time around. The high point in the combination of weirdness and jocularity perhaps arrives in an extended scene in which Clay takes the haunted Christine to dinner with his rich, snobby parents (Chelcie Ross and Molly Cheek), and she brings along a harvest cake that proves to have a few more ingredients than the recipe called for. The movie does run down somewhat toward the close, after the séance with Madame Dena, and what’s effectively an epilogue set in a train station comes across as too reminiscent of the “Carrie” model (though the closing twist shows the Raimis aren’t sell-outs). But even here, it’s a better than average frightfest.
The actors in a movie like this have to pitch their performances at the right level for their roles, and they mostly succeed. On the one hand, Long, Rao and Paymer underplay, with tongues firmly in cheek. Others, however, go for broke with broad, oversized turns—Barraza, Lee, and especially Raver, who, abetted by gruesome makeup, chews up every bit of scenery in sight and, in many instances, literally spits it back into the unhappy heroine’s face and mouth (the exchange of fluids is a motif calculated to gross out viewers every time it’s employed, and it certainly succeeds). In any other context her gleefully lip-smacking performance would be simply outrageous, but here it’s outrageously right.
Then there’s Lohman, who must walk a fine line between tormented damsel in distress and young woman determined to do almost anything, however unpalatable, to survive. Though hardly charismatic, she manages the task well enough, and certainly captures the character’s naïve innocence. And she’s attractive without being a ravishing beauty.
“Drag Me to Hell” is crammed with effects and CGI work that are never remotely realistic, but the cheesy quality itself is suited to Raimi’s brand of goofy Halloween trickery. (So is Christopher Young’s bombastic score, with occasional echoes of Jerry Goldsmith’s “Omen” music.) As a throwback to the spirit of his early cult shockers, this slicker chamber of horrors can’t match their zonked-out adolescent ebullience, but it comes remarkably close. It seems that, at least for this filmmaker, the old adage that you can’t go home again doesn’t apply.