Sam Raimi first burst onto the scene in 1987, with the micro-budget marvel, The Evil Dead; a film hailed by fans and critics alike as one of the most refreshingly original horror films in decades. By the time he'd wrapped production on said film's sequel, Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, Raimi had cemented his position atop the horror auteur A-list, and, with the release of 1992's Army of Darkness, the director was nothing short of a genre god. To paraphrase Stan Lee, with great success comes great marketability, so, after a brief foray into respectable drama fare (1998's A Simple Plan), Raimi was given the helm of the Spider-Man franchise- a gig that would monopolize nearly a decade of the director's time, leaving legions of horror breathlessly awaiting their hero's return. It's been a long time coming, but Raimi finally answers the call with his throwback thriller, Drag Me to Hell.
From her alcoholic mother to her farm girl drawl, Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is a young woman desperate to put her past behind her. With a new life that includes a great job as a loan officer, a loving boyfriend in Clay (Justin Long), and potential big promotion on the horizon, everything seems to be going right for Christine. When Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) - an elderly gypsy whose home is in foreclosure- comes to Christine's bank seeking her assistance, the decision to grant Mrs. Ganush an extension is ultimately up to Christine, but she decides not to help the woman in order to show her boss, Mr. Jacks (the ever-reliable David Paymer), that she can make the tough decisions he expects his candidates for the assistant mangers job to make. Mrs. Ganush pleads with Christine to no avail, and, when security has to intervene, the old gypsy leaves in hysterics, decrying Christine for shaming her.
Note to self: Never, under any circumstances, shame a gypsy.
On her way home that eveing, Christine is attacked by Mrs. Ganush, whereupon the old woman tears off one of Christine's buttons, recites some hoodoo mystical jargon, and tells Christine that soon she'll be begging Mrs. Ganush for help. It isn't long before Christine is experiencing wild hallucinations and visitations from both the old gypsy woman and shadowy entities, including a sort of demonic home invasion in which Christine gets laid out by an invisible right hook. Clay is convinced that she's suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, but humors her by accompanying Christine to a visit to a fortune teller named Rham Jas (Dileep Rao). Rham senses something in the girl that terrifies him, but he ultimately decides to help her. But time is short, and the outcome appears uncertain, as every passing day brings Christine one step closer to Hell.
Sami Raimi's return to horror isn't so much of the genre triumph people are declaring it to be as it is a noisy, slapstick spectacle, but it's still an awful lot of fun. Unlike the dozens of critics who've gone out of their to overstate the pants-browning effect this film had on them, Drag Me to Hell didn't scare me a lick. On the contrary, the film is a laugh-riot, with Three Stooges-style violence, lots of way over-the-top scenes involving all manner of bodily fluids, and a bunch of smile-inducing nods to the Evil Dead films (including one sequence set in a shed that will delight fans Dead by Dawn fans). Raimi expertly gooses the audience on the regular basis, but the scares are of the goofy carnival funhouse variety (which, is in my mind, what the director intended) rather than the sort of visceral, nightmare-inducing terrors the quotes that litter the film's trailers promise.
Raimi populates his film with a nice ensemble of familiar faces and relative newcomers, each of whom bring something unique to the film. Lohman makes for a wonderful victim, imbuing her Christine with a fragile country gal innocence that is at constant odds with the inherent ambitions and ruthlessness of city life. It's this inner conflict that makes Christine such an easy target for the likes of not only Mrs. Ganush, but the sleazy Mr. Jacks, and her unscrupulous co-worker, Stu (Reggie Lee), as well. Justin Long, meanwhile, delivers an uncharacteristically mannered performance as Christine's patient and dedicated beau, and emerges alongside Dileep Rao's Rham as one of the film's most likeable and sympathetic characters. The real star of the show, however, is character actress Lorna Raver, who will probably forever be known as Mrs. Ganush thanks to her manic, unhinged performance here.
Drag Me to Hell is a welcome return to the genre from Raimi, and shows the director hasn't lost his touch when it comes to the craft of concocting humorous horror. Is it even remotely as scary as the hyperbole-spouting quote whores will have you believe? Absolutely not. However, in a genre suffering from a near-terminal case of "sameness", a fun, frantic, and thoroughly entertaining flick like Drag Me to Hell is just what the doctor ordered.