Dir: Sam Raimi. US. 2009. 99 mins.


Clearly delighting in a return to his roots, Sam Raimi downshifts from the billion-dollar Spider-Man franchise with Drag Me to Hell, a slickly made, engaging horror film that evokes the spirit of much of the director’s early work, particularly the Evil Dead series. Mixing different modes of horror storytelling with dark touches of humour, Raimi proves here that gore isn’t necessary for a cathartic horror-thrill ride.

The disgustingly made-up Raver steals the show, guaranteeing that viewers will think twice about speaking ill of old women taking too long to cross the street

Raimi’s name should pull in some Spider-Man fans, but those unfamiliar with the humour of his early work will likely feel baffled by how much Drag Me to Hell differs from current teen-baiting horror fare. Still, mid-eight-figure grosses seem certain, outstripping the returns of similar genre hybrids such as Slither and Cabin Fever.

Los Angeles loan officer Christine Brown (Lohman) has a good life; she’s happy with her boyfriend, Clay Dalton (Long), a young professor at a nearby college, and seems to have the inside track on a promotion. In an effort to impress upon her boss (Paymer) that she can make tough-minded decisions with an eye on the bottom line rather than human compassion, Christine denies a third extension on the home mortgage of an old woman (Raver), which means certain foreclosure.

Feeling that she has been shamed, the woman viciously attacks Christine after work in the parking lot and places a curse on her. A spooked Christine consults with psychic Rham Jas (Rao), and learns the specifics of the gypsy curse: that she will be tormented for three days by a spirit which will eventually come to claim her soul. Increasingly panicked attempts to alter that destiny ensue.

Drag Me to Hell trades in an aggressive sound mix and plenty of conventional horror signifiers — creaking windows and wind-slammed garden gates, mewing cats and clattering pans. But the movie also shows a smart sense of construction.

Working from a script with his brother Ivan, a frequent collaborator, Raimi seeds his story with alternately small and amusing details (farmgirl Christine used to be overweight, which quietly feeds her insecurity and anxiety over being accepted by Clay’s rich parents) that help give the movie the feeling of an anchored drama. Overall, the emphasis is definitely on the thrills and horror, but comedic notes are interwoven throughout as well.

Raimi also proves himself to be a master manipulator of genre mood, efficient with effects both practical and computer-generated. Ominous shadow play and a handful of low-angle tracking shots are intermingled with other trademark Raimi flourishes, like his resurrected fetish for wildly over-the-top, hand-to-hand violence perpetrated by and against seemingly possessed old ladies. These low-fi sequences help give the film’s artificial visual effects greater punch and value.

While Drag Me to Hell is rated PG-13 in the US, it’s unlikely that most horror buffs will feel cheated. The director gleefully dispenses with the usual sacred cows (neither children nor kittens are safe), and also leans on wild gross-out moments to goose his audience. There are effusive sprays of slimy phlegm and vomit, as well as one comedic blood-gushing sequence, all of which would make Monty Python’s Mr. Creosote proud.

If there’s a problem, it’s that the film doesn’t quite feel tethered enough to a forceful personality, as with Bruce Campbell’s Ash in the Evil Dead movies. This is mitigated slightly by a final 30 minutes in which Christine becomes more assertive.

Lohman brings a steadying presence to the picture, while Long nicely balances sympathetic assistance and confused ambivalence at watching his girlfriend mentally unravel. It’s the disgustingly made-up Raver, though, who steals the show, guaranteeing that viewers will think twice about speaking ill of old women taking too long to cross the street.

Production companies
Ghost House Pictures
Universal Pictures

International Sales
Mandate International
(1) 310 255 3700

Rob Tapert
Grant Curtis

Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi

Peter Demming

Production designer
Steve Saklad

Bob Murawski

Original music
Christopher Young

Main cast
Alison Lohman
Justin Long
Lorna Raver
Dileep Rao
Reggie Lee
David Paymer
Adriana Barraza