Drag Me to Hell

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 05/29/09 16:55:40

"30 minutes of great splatstick spread out over a 99 minute movie."
3 stars (Average)

“Drag Me to Hell” is a loud movie. Achingly, screechingly, deafeningly loud. But Sam Raimi, who gave us “The Evil Dead” and “Darkman” and “The Quick and the Dead” before going legit with quiet dramas and popcorn blockbusters, oh, he knows how to do crazy loud.

The secret’s all in the jump-scares. You know jump-scares. They’re when a quick something bursts onto the frame, accompanied by the jolt of a dramatic music sting. Some are serious - the killer popping up out of nowhere - and some are jokey red herrings - the “it’s only a cat” phenomenon. Either way, they’re often used as a crutch by lesser filmmakers who don’t know how to properly handle suspense, so they just throw out a bunch of jump-scares to rattle us to attention.

But not Sam Raimi. The director knows all about how horror and comedy can work together, and so he plasters his new movie - his first pure horror effort since 1993’s “Army of Darkness” - with jump-scares that work on their own terms, not as a cheat, but as a grabber. This is spookhouse stuff here, where it’s all about the jump-scare and the gross-out. If Raimi had a rubber skeleton he could launch into the audience, he probably would.

The whole thing - in which an old gypsy woman (Lorna Raver) dumps a nasty curse on young Christine (Alison Lohman), leaving her to deal with the maniacal goat-devil who wants her soul - has a sly E.C. Comics vibe to it, loaded with sick humor, grotesque imagery, and some rather nasty twists; you can almost hear the Cryptkeeper cackling away in the corner. (In fact, a handful of digital effects are the only non-retro thing about this film, which centers on old fashioned occult doings for its plot; even the opening Universal logo is old school.) “Drag Me to Hell” would’ve made a terrific chapter in “Creepshow,” or maybe “Tales from the Crypt.”

Ah, but there’s the problem. This is a thirty minute story stretched to feature length, leaving us with repetition and too many go-nowhere scenes. In fleshing out the script, Raimi and his co-writer, brother Ivan Raimi, give us unnecessary details. Christine used to be overweight and is tempted by sweets, a fact that goes unused as the movie progresses. She also escaped life on the farm, which causes tension with the snooty parents of her boyfriend (Justin Long); it all leads to a scene where she snaps at a dinner party, but the humorous tension would’ve worked just as well without the country girl-meets-the rich snobs elements. A subplot involving Christine’s work - she’s up for a promotion, against a sniveling brownnoser (Reggie Lee) - works somewhat better, if only because it works to lead up to a sinister punchline that never quite arrives, which is a smart (and sinister) punchline in itself.

And those are just the side details. Even the main story is padded in all the wrong places, as Christine’s psychic advisor (Dileep Rao) keeps trying new things. It’s frustrating, watching all these scenes that don’t really go anywhere but don’t cause enough frights to make them work on their own. (The noisy overkill of a late-movie séance is most frustrating of all, since it leads nowhere.) The core of the story is just enough to fill the opening and closing scenes; the entire middle act is, well, a drag.

It doesn’t help that Lohman seems unable to get to the heart of the Raimi’s intentionally campy material. She struggles to deliver too many corny lines too straight, as if she’s not in on the joke. Raver, on the other hand, is way, way, way in on the joke, allowing herself to become slimy and spiteful through and through, all for a good squeal.

And good squeals are what make “Drag Me to Hell” ultimately worth it. For all its shoddy plotting, the movie’s chock full of squeamy, squicky bits that’ll be great for a scream, especially in a packed theater. Raimi’s Three Stooges influences plays out hard here, leaving the movie a whole heap of slimy funhouse delight. Why whisper boo, when you can shout it?

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