Directed by Sam Raimi
During a prologue set in 1969, we watch as a young Mexican boy seemingly possessed by demons is at the center of an exorcism that ends with him literally being pulled through the floor of the house by a demon from hell. After that startling opening, we’re introduced to Alison Lohman’s Christine Brown, a mild-mannered bank loan officer faced with a tough decision whether to help an old woman named Mrs. Ganush who needs an extension on her home loan. Having been trying to get a promotion at work, Christine uses the opportunity to show her boss (David Paymer) that she has a spine, but the woman goes nuts, jumping her and screaming something at her in a foreign tongue. Their confrontation doesn’t end there as when Christine is heading to her car after work, she gets into another physical scuffle with the old woman, leading to one of the funniest movie fights you’ll see this summer. Later that night, Christine starts being terrorized by horrific visions and becomes so completely freaked out by then that she seeks aid of a Hindu mystic named Rham Jas, who tells her that she’s been cursed by a demon called “the lamia” that will come for her in three days.
Raimi is clearly going high concept with a gypsy curse premise that would have worked well within a ’70s B-movie, but it retains so many modern sensibilities that it never feels dated or retro. Obviously, Raimi has a great eye for visuals and pacing and how sound design can be used to best effect (be warned; this movie is LOUD!), but just as impressive is his near-perfect comic timing at hitting every single beat just right to get the biggest laughs. Sure, there are a few cheap scares that play upon our primal fears, but usually they’re leading to something far more disturbing and unexpected. Those unaware of Raimi’s pre-“Spider-Man” work may be shocked by the amount of disgusting images involving streams of bugs, rancid meat and the like. Even so, all of the gore retains the cartoonish charm of the “Evil Dead” movies, even as Raimi’s production values have improved with a nearly indiscernible mix of practical and CG effects. It’s actually surprising what Raimi is able to get away with while retaining a “safer” PG-13 rating.
Raimi couldn’t have found a more perfect actress than Alison Lohman to subject to his depravity. From the moment you meet her, she’s someone you can like and empathize with, and yet you still get great enjoyment seeing what Raimi puts her through, whether she’s being gummed by crazy old woman or stalked by demonic shadow creatures. Justin Long tones down his own natural comic instincts to play the loving and supportive boyfriend, while Dileep Rao brings a lot of laughs to the table as a mystical stereotype. Then there’s Reggie Lee as Stu Rubin, absolutely the worst possible co-worker you can possibly have, a sniveling brown-noser who plagues Christine so much at work that you’ll wish for him to get a taste of what Christine is going through.
What makes this movie so refreshing is that Raimi clearly understands that horror doesn’t have to be all grim and serious to be effectively scary. No movie since maybe Eli Roth’s “Hostel” has so brilliantly blended humor into the gore and scares, which makes “Drag Me to Hell” more than just your typical cookie-cutter Hollywood horror movie, instead being one of those classic horror movies from the past, like “Poltergeist” and “The Exorcist,” which you can watch many times over and always be entertained.
Christine’s plight culminates in a combination exorcism-séance to rid her of the demons, led by Mexican actress Adriana Barraza struggling through her English. It’s a great horror movie moment that starts getting ridiculously silly when the demon possesses the body of a talking goat before settling in a wildly-dancing servant. In the hands of any other director, this would probably take you completely out of the movie, but Raimi has already set up such a whimsical and playful tone that you readily accept it. Unfortunately, Raimi knows he has you, and he proceeds to go off the rails as Christine desperately tries to rid herself of the curse. When she has a second encounter with the old gypsy’s animated handkerchief, it seems redundant and completely unnecessary. By that point, we’ve seen a huge change in Christine’s demeanor, not only being far more assertive but also doing things we could never have imagined from her when first introduced.
If you’ve been paying close attention, you’ll already have figured out the predictable twist before it arrives. It’s so constantly entertaining to watch Raimi put this nice young lady through the wringer, forcing her to do all sorts of unholy acts, that the end results make for an interesting character study in how far someone can be pushed and how far they’ll go to get over it. In that sense, the ending makes perfect sense; it’ll leave you buzzing long after you leave the theater, even if you may start questioning your own morals for being so amused and entertained by Christine’s treatment.
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