In Theaters: Drag Me to Hell
With the superb Drag Me to Hell, writer/director Sam Raimi couldn't announce any more audaciously his intentions to break free from the constricting web of mega-budget superhero franchises, and return to the gross-out comedy-horror genre that made him famous. Before it even begins, the signs are there. A familiar, starry sky reveals itself to be the 1980s Universal logo, leading into a deliciously hammy, spectacularly staged prologue that wastes no time in swinging open the first of the film's many trap doors. By the time you're smacked in the face with a title card, you're all in.
With a tone even more sinister than Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy, the tale unfolds like a lost chapter from 1982 George A. Romero/Stephen King collaboration Creepshow (only a good thing). Alison Lohman is Christine Brown, a diligent and ambitious loan officer who has done a fairly successful job of leaving her fat, farm girl past behind. She lives in a cozy Craftsman in Echo Park, and spends lunches with her doting boyfriend, Clay, a psychology professor played compellingly by Justin Long. (So much so, in fact, that just minutes in, his face ceased to involuntarily trigger mental notes that my laptop screen has been flickering.)
Christine craves, and deserves, a promotion. Standing in her way is a manipulative boss, Mr. Jacks (David Paymer, the Brando of character actors who specialize in sniveling authority figures), and Stu, a sycophantic co-worker also vying for the job. So when Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver, in the role that will make her a horror movie star) -- a marble-eyed, phlegm-spitting Gypsy woman with a nasty habit of leaving her jagged dentures on your desk when you aren't around -- arrives to beg for a third extension on her mortgage, Jacks leaves the decision up to Christine. Unlike famed Kazakh Borat Sagdiyev, however, Christine has no need for the Gypsy's tears. She refuses her.
Big mistake. (Big surprise.) Almost instantly, the kindly and obsequious woman turns into the creature we've all shown up to see: the monstrous face of the credit crunch. The old woman's car -- the '73 Oldsmobile that surpasses even the mighty Bruce Campbell as Raimi's favorite muse -- soon appears, lingering in the shadows of a parking structure. Then comes one of the most entertaining sequences you'll see in any film this summer, period. Christine comes away feeling quite differently, of course, having now been introduced more formally to a vengeful tormentor who could give Randy the Ram a run for his money in her sheer, staple-gun resilience.
What follows is a series of terrifying set-pieces that don't induce dread so much as the scream-then-laugh exhilaration of a Knott's Scary Farm funhouse. Hell makes full use of its PG-13 license to heap on the violence, so long as the girl being flung against the kitchen cabinets keeps her shirt on. But some of the biggest chills come from things that could probably have snuck into a G-rated flick: moving shadows, insects, bodily expulsions, and, perhaps most effectively of all, the film's audio design by Paul N.J. Ottosson. It's a masterful and thunderous symphony of creaks and clatters that deserves a nod come technical awards season.
But this is Sam's show, and what's perhaps most amazing about it is how easy he makes it all seem. By the time the film climaxes in a third act exorcism that seems to defy all laws of nature and gravity, you can practically feel the director smiling behind his monitors at every turn. Drag Me to Hell is a joyous reconvening of man and bloody-good material that recalls Sweeney Todd's momentous reunion with his gleaming razor blades. Swing your camera high, Raimi. Rating (out of 10): 9.5.