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Drag Me to Hell

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/28/09 14:00:00

"Sam Raimi and Alison Lohman, making horror fun again."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT THE 2009 SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST FILM FESTIVAL: Can you believe it's been over twenty years since "Evil Dead 2"? Considering how much of Sam Raimi's reputation and career is built on that movie and its particular style (he was considered an inspired choice for the "Spider-Man" films because of it), one would think he'd done more like it, but in fact he's ranged pretty far afield. Even "Army of Darkness" was something rather different, more PG-13-ish Ray Harryhausen tribute than horror. So while seeing him return to this genre is exciting, it's not unreasonable to wonder whether he's still got something like that in him.

Thankfully, he does. Drag Me to Hell is the Evil Dead 2-iest thing he's done since Darkman, if not ED2 itself, and reassuring in how it demonstrates that his time in the world of of big stars and big budgets hasn't changed him, but rather given him access to and mastery of new tools. Part of the reason why this one manages to retain the feel of an old-school Raimi movie is that it sort of is one - the script was first written years ago, and (I believe) pulled out during the 2007 writers' strike - but give Raimi (along with brother and co-writer Ivan) credit for not deciding to tone it down too much now that they're older and wiser.

When we meet Christine (Alison Lohman), the loan officer is up for a promotion to assistant manager of a Los Angeles bank; the branch manager (David Paymer) has it down to her and less senior but more aggressive Stu (Reggie Lee). An old woman (Lorna Raver) comes in seeking an extension on her mortgage payments; Christine hems and haws but ultimately refuses, noting Mrs. Ganush has had two already. The woman is upset, attacking Christine in the bank's parking garage. Boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) is just glad she's okay, but Christine doesn't think it's over, as weird things start happening and a slick-talking fortune teller (Dileep Rao) tells her she's been made the target of a lamia, a demon which will torment her for a few days before pulling her into Hell.

Horror films can be a lot of fun, but they have entered something of a standardized rut at times, taking on the form of the slasher subgenre with a cast to be whittled down and an a fetishistic focus on quick, shocking kills, with the hero/victim characters little more than fodder. Drag Me to Hell goes the other way with it; this is definitely Christine's movie, with the lamia focused on her rather than picking people off semi-randomly. In some ways, that's a lot more satisfying for the audience; we get to bond with this one character and share her fear. And while we know Christine's probably not going to die at the midway point, the Raimis have no problem with hurting her, both emotionally or by tossing her around like a ragdoll.

Indeed, Alison Lohman takes a bunch of physical punishment in this movie, much more than just falling down while she runs or taking a quick knife to the gut - she's put through the wringer in just about every way possible. She makes for a very enjoyable horror heroine, though - Christine is basically nice, and delivers when put into situations where the girl is expected to scream and faint, but we also see the bits of ambition and need to be taken seriously that get her into the mess early on. What sticks out the most, and is perhaps the most fun, is when we see her as the girl who is not only capable of fighting back, but kind of enjoys it. It makes the second half of the movie even more fun, since she gets more chances to be proactive and aggressive than just react, and Lohman works the realistically contradictory parts of Christine's personality so that we'll believe her no matter which way she jumps.

The rest of the cast is complementary. Justin Long is probably the best-known name, but doesn't have a whole lot to do as The Boyfriend. His best scenes probably come opposite Dileep Rao, who makes fortune-teller Rham Jas slick and modern as opposed to a mystical foreigner, though not so much so that he comes across as a huckster. Reggie Lee makes Stu a comic villain (now, there's a phony), and Lorna Raver is an enjoyably human witch.

There's a lot of "fun" and "funny" in the description of this movie, but that doesn't mean that it's not scary. The opening flashback establishes that the movie is playing for keeps, but this movie is well aware that it's fun to be made to jump, or to laugh at something that is kind of twisted. Raimi's got the gift of making the funny and the sick reinforce each other, and he can stage an action scene better than anyone in the business. I won't say exactly which is my favorite, but it's a little masterpiece, as he sets up just where everything is in relation to each other, pointedly highlights that the action will likely be straight out of Looney Tunes cartoons, builds some suspense, and the releases it with a gross-out. It's funny, but it's not a parody of horror - it's the real deal with the recognition that there's a grain of absurdity in any crazy situation.

That's what makes Drag Me to Hell such a nifty horror movie; it is looking to entertain an audience rather than push an envelope or just follow a formula. There's a place for disturbing horror, but sometimes it should be fun to be scared, too.

(Note: "Drag Me to Hell" was screened at SXSW as a work-in-progress. It looked fairly close to complete, with no technical flaws to detract from the work, but this review may be updated after seeing the finished version.)

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