If there’s one thing I have learned from the movies, it’s never to piss off a gypsy. Those guys don’t mess around. Director Sam Raimi makes this lesson painfully clear in Drag Me to Hell, a film that marks his return after many years to the sort of go-for-broke horror movies with which he began his career. Raimi proves here that his years in the golden gulag of Spider-Man have honed his filmmaking skills without dulling the gleeful sadism that we all know and love.
Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is moving up in life. She is a formerly fat farm girl who moved to the big city, lost her drawl and a bunch of weight, and got a good job as a loan officer. However, no amount of aggressive self-improvement will help her against a gypsy curse. Christine is up for a big promotion at the bank, but her boss (David Paymer) doubts that she has the ability to make “tough decisions.” So when a crusty old woman named Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) comes in looking for a third extension for her mortgage, Christine turns her down. When Mrs. Ganush falls down on her knees and begs, and Christine still refuses, the old woman feels shamed and vows that Christine will pay. And good God, does she pay.
Christine’s boyfriend is Clay (Justin Long), a psychology professor who doesn’t believe in this curse craziness. But Christine does find support in the form of Rham Jas (Dileep Rao), a psychic who tells her that she has indeed been cursed, and the demon after her is called the Lamia. It will torment her, mentally and physically, for three days before it takes her to the hot place. Rham also enlists the help of Shaun San Dena (Adriana Barraza), a medium who has had a previous encounter with the Lamia.
I’ll tell you, it seems unfair that you can just curse somebody straight to hell. There’s a bureaucracy in place to make that decision for a reason. But that idea of arbitrary, excessive cosmic punishment is one of the things that makes the movie so interesting.
Drag Me to Hell is a very particular kind of crazy, seemingly unique to Raimi. As much as straight horror, it aims for outrageousness, ultra-black comedy and a sort of Tales from the Crypt vibe of people getting what is coming to them, and so much more. All this is accompanied by plenty of goo and gunk (poor Christine gets an incredible variety of substances, from phlegm to embalming fluid, sprayed on her and in her mouth). This is a style that fans of Raimi’s Evil Dead movies will be very familiar with. And any fans worried that years of making blockbusters might have softened Raimi’s sensibilities can only be heartened after seeing this movie to know that the demented-showman aspect of his personality is still alive and kicking.
The Evil Dead movies wore their Three Stooges-slapstick influences on their sleeves, and Drag Me to Hell seems to owe a debt to Looney Tunes as well. There is a fight scene in a parking garage between Christine and the old lady that keeps escalating and escalating, and getting more absurd and outrageous that you have to laugh. And in another brawl between the two, in Christine’s tool shed, she tries to free herself from the gypsy by dropping the anvil she has suspended from a rope onto the old woman’s head. Because who doesn’t have an anvil hanging in their garage?
Raimi liberally deploys various bodily fluids and gleefully outrageous humor, but he also knows exactly how to scare the crap out of us, and he masterfully manages to switch back and forth between those tones on a dime. Raimi uses jump scares to jolt us, but he also uses silence and shadows equally well. Even though we know Christine isn’t in any mortal danger from the Lamia until day three, there are scenes — aided by terrific sound design and Christopher Young’s haunting music — of incredibly sustained tension and terror. Never has a handkerchief floating through the air been so unsettling.
Raimi wrote the script with his brother Ivan. The two have obviously read Stephen King’s Thinner, but they take the familiar idea and turn it into a wonderfully insane showcase for their own sensibilities. Christine’s moral lapse is really quite small — indeed, the wildly disproportionate consequences for Christine’s actions almost work against the movie — but it’s really fun to see exactly how far she will become willing to go in order to avoid damnation. Lohman, a petite blonde who has looked 18 for about the last 10 years, brings substantial sweetness and wholesomeness to Christine, but we can also occasionally see a sinister gleam in her eye, which makes us suspect that she maybe deserves some of what’s coming to her. This sets up a very interesting dynamic for the audience.
Lohman was good in movies such as Matchstick Men and White Oleander, but this may be the best showcase for her talents yet. She gets slapped around a lot in this movie, and she really proves to be a game-day player. In fact, she’s almost as fun a target of abuse as Raimi’s frequent collaborator, and man among men, Bruce Campbell, star of the Evil Dead movies.
Drag Me to Hell may be Raimi’s scariest movie to date. Years in the wasteland of respectability have done nothing to dull his ability to shock us and make us laugh, often at the same time. Raimi may have become a mature filmmaker, but at heart he is still the guy who loves to sneak up behind people and yell, “Boo!”