Sunday, June 7, 2009

Drag Me to Hell

I originally opened this review by mentioning how Drag Me to Hell is Sam Raimi's return to the horror genre after 16 years of more mainstream fare, but I scrapped it for two reasons: unlike his revered Evil Dead series, this has broad mainstream appeal; and, by focusing on the fact that he's back to horror, I move the focus away from how brilliant the film actually is.

Raimi fans will feel a rush of joy in the very first moments where a Mexican couple bring their hallucinating child to a mystic to free him of some sort of curse. Before she can, an invisible force bursts through the windows and beats the adults before the floor opens up and demon hands drag the boy to, well, you can guess.

Flash-forward from 1969 to the present, and we meet our protagonist. Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is a loan officer at the local bank. She's dating a psychology professor (Justin Long) and she's in the running for the open Assistant Manager position alongside Stu, who only recently joined the bank but is, in the words of the boss, "aggressive." To prove her backbone, she denies a loan to elderly Mrs. Ganush, who's already received two extensions but can't keep up the payments.

When Christine goes to leave that evening, the old gypsy assails her in the parking lot and steals a button of the young lady's coat. She chants a curse, then hands it back to Christine. Soon, she sees the same visions that plagued the boy all those years ago, as well as visions of the mad old woman. After consulting with the obligatory fortune teller, she discovers that she will endure the visions/attacks for three days, at which point the tormenting demon will manifest and claim her soul.

And that's all you need to know. Drag Me to Hell is nothing if not predictable, and Raimi's horror films have never been big on plot. But what makes it so great, as with Raimi's other horror fare, is his inventiveness and how he toys with staid conventions. Yes, Christine must seek out the Eastern mystic, but the Raimi brothers avoid stereotypes. Rham Jas (Dileep Rao) wears business attire, knows Western philosophy and psychology, and accepts credit cards. When Long's Clay brings the farm-raised Christine to meet his high-society parents, his mother fits the bill for the frigid, dismissive snob but quickly warms to Christine's honesty and ambition.

I can't find the figures on the film's budget, but it's clearly not a whole lot, and certainly a significant amount less than the numbers Raimi's had at his disposal for the Spider-Man franchise. But that brings out the spark that's been missing from his work for so long: he brings back good old Raimi mainstays with his invisible attacker, ratcheting up the tension with the mostly physical effects of objects creaking and crashing as the Beast approaches. The CG leaves a lot to be desired, but it's to be expected for lower-budget features, and it never distracts all that much.

Those physical effects, combined with Christopher Young's terrific score, create an endlessly creepy atmosphere, one that never allows you to drop your guard, not even for a second. But Raimi fills the screams with so much of his unique humor that I didn't know whether to use my hands to shield my eyes or hold my insides. You can see the ending coming from a mile away, but Raimi lulls you into a sense of security before he does it, and it makes the final moment one of the most brilliantly funny scenes of any film in recently memory. I had tears in my eyes when the title card came up from laughing so hard.

So, there's barely a plot to speak of, and no real subtext. The closest thing I can think of to a message is that loan officers should be more careful when it comes to denying people. Raimi spent the entire decade slipping into directorial mediocrity with the Spider-Man franchise -- which has aged about as gracefully as milk -- but here he's back on top as one of the most creative and entertaining filmmakers in the industry. Even if, like me, you're not big on horror, you owe it to yourself to check out Drag Me to Hell, by leaps and bounds Raimi's best since Evil Dead II.

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