Movie Review: 'Drag Me to Hell'

Filmmaker Sam Raimi returns to his horror roots with this chiller about a loan officer (Alison Lohman) who becomes the victim of a curse after forcing a woman's eviction from her home. Video by Universal Pictures
By Dan Kois
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 29, 2009

In each of the two great movies opening this weekend, a crotchety old person faces the loss of the family home to cold, impersonal capitalism. On which film should you, the viewer, spend your hard-earned money? Well, if you think you'd enjoy seeing the elderly hero spirit away his home in an inspiring ode to adventure and friendship, you should see "Up." On the other hand, if you'd rather watch the old person viciously attack a loan officer, tear out chunks of her hair and place a horrifying Gypsy curse on her soul, then see "Drag Me to Hell." How angry are you feeling about the economy, anyway?

Sam Raimi's return to horror filmmaking is a satisfyingly, terrifyingly old-fashioned thriller and chiller, all right. Its mix of horror and humor has much more in common with his legendary "Evil Dead" series than with the "Spider-Man" movies he's spent the past half-decade lucratively helming. It comes complete with a plucky heroine, an ancient curse and bodily fluids sprayed about willy-nilly.

As in the best horror movies, "Drag Me to Hell" keeps the audience on the edge of hysteria throughout, so that every thump sets the heart racing and every joke earns a slightly out-of-control laugh. So expertly does Raimi (who also wrote the film with his brother Ivan) pull the strings on the viewer that by the end, you'll even find yourself cheering for the loan officer (Alison Lohman) who takes an old lady's house away.

As "Drag Me to Hell" begins, that loan officer, Christine Brown, is at a crossroads. Her boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) loves her, but his upper-crust parents think she's a hick from the sticks. Her boss (David Paymer) is dangling a promotion, but an office suck-up (Reggie Lee) might steal it from her. So when an old woman, Mrs. Ganush (the fearless Lorna Raver), appears at her desk pleading for a little more time to pay off her mortgage, Christine hardens her heart and denies the request.

As it turns out, it's not a good idea to foreclose on a Gypsy sorceress with demons at her command. After a very scary encounter with Mrs. Ganush in the parking garage, Christine begins hearing voices, seeing visions and suffering attacks from invisible foes. Clay may scoff, but a psychic (Dileep Rao) confirms that Christine is being stalked by a demon, and in three days she'll be pulled into the underworld forever.

A good scare is all about rhythm, and Raimi is a masterly conductor. As Christine's curse progresses, Raimi draws out the tension of each demon attack, using agonizingly long, slow takes and ominous sound effects to drive Christine's panic -- and ours -- to a fever pitch. And then, everything gets . . . quiet. And then all hell breaks loose.

But just as you've become acclimated to "Drag Me to Hell's" loud-quiet-loud structure -- just when you think that, as in a Pixies song, you can safely predict when the screams will come -- Raimi throws you a change-up, springing a scare when you least expect it. The frightening scenes in "Drag Me to Hell" occur in darkness and in daylight, in creepy old mansions and spooky graveyards but also in brightly lit bank branches. Anything can be scary: A handkerchief. A cellphone. Even a housefly plays a central, and squeal-inducing, role.

Awash in phlegm, blood, maggots and even embalming fluid, "Drag Me to Hell" is nonetheless refreshingly free of the kind of cruelly inventive torture that has characterized recent horror franchises. In fact, "Drag Me to Hell" is the rare horror movie that can be survived by people who normally can't take horror movies. It's outlandish enough that it's unlikely to cause nightmares (after all, when are you going to foreclose on a witch?), and Raimi leavens the movie with laughs, albeit dark ones. (Suffice it to say that adorable kittens, whether living or portrayed on iconic motivational posters, have rarely been put to more grimly humorous use than in "Drag Me to Hell.") And the movie's sucker-punch ending will leave even experienced horror movie fans amazed at Raimi's nerve.

What elevates "Drag Me to Hell" above the level of exemplary horror movie -- what makes it a garish and loud work of pop art -- is its mix of inventive supernatural gross-outs and carefully observed everyday details. And not just in its treatment of America's mortgage crisis. For many viewers, the movie's most unnerving scene won't be a demon attack at all, but Christine's awkward first dinner with Clay's snooty parents. It's excruciating to watch the four of them making small talk around a formal dining room table, and when the walls started shaking and an eyeball appeared in Christine's cake, I found myself relaxing a little bit. Whew! I thought, as the blood spurted forth. Finally I can stop covering my eyes, and just let Sam Raimi scare the hell out of me.

Drag Me to Hell (96 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sequences of horror violence, terror, disturbing images and language.

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