Drag Me to Hell is the triumphant return of horror's prodigal son.
In the 80s Sam Raimi fashioned his own variety of low-budget horror with the Evil Dead movies, but after 1992's Army of Darkness, Raimi stopped making straight horror (although his underrated dirty-South ghost story The Gift has some horror elements), and got famous in the ‘00s with the blockbuster Spider-Man franchise. Horror fans will recognize his particular brand of frenetic editing, surreal mise-en-scene, and pursuant point-of-view: these trademark flourishes are in full force in last weekend's opener Drag Me to Hell.
Hell's script, written by Raimi and his brother Ivan, is clever and mischievous. Although it can be over-the-top silly, the screenplay emphasizes character development and relationships (a rarity in B-horror). Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) was overweight and farm-bound as a child, but as an adult she is a pretty, ambitious professional. Her relationship with professor boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) is loving and functional, but not overly cutesy or tense-except for a riotous scene in which she meets his parents.
Christine placates her obvious feelings of inadequacy (and Clay's nagging mother) by pursuing an assistant manager job at the bank. When she has to start making the managerial-caliber "big decisions," she refuses a loan extension to an old gypsy woman, who in turn lays a curse on her. Then Christine has three days to fight for her life and her sanity. With the help of Clay, a palm reader, and a medium, she has to fend off a demon before it can, well, drag her to hell.
The casting is smart: rather than half-naked teenagers, Hell's leads are older, minor stars who retain class and poise (even while being attacked by an evil goat). Lohman's pale features, long blond hair, and dark, expressive brown eyes give her the fragile appearance of a porcelain doll, but Christine proves determined, intelligent, and strong-refreshing traits in a female horror protagonist. Long (whom you may recognize as the Mac commercial guy) is a charmer, and he fulfills the understanding-boyfriend role to a T.
The movie is rated PG-13, which is sometimes a death-knell for horror movies, since, counter-intuitively, it narrows the audience (many parents don't want their teens seeing horror movies at all, and adults-including me-are often skeptical of PG-13 horror's maturity level). Though the cursing and sex in Hell are minimal, there are bodily fluids and other gross-outs aplenty. From phlegm-covered false teeth, to extreme nosebleeds, to ingesting houseflies and embalming fluid, the movie is full of things to make you wince-which, as avid fans know, is Raimi's forte.
Horror is my favorite film genre largely because the material causes such visceral reactions: scary movies are best to see on opening weekend because others' shrieks, laughter, and groans intensify the experience. Whether the bodily response be goosebumps, a racing heartbeat, a cringe, an outright jump, convulsive laughter, or fainting (as some audience members supposedly did at The Exorcist), horror makes viewers feel. In Hell, the audience guffawed, recoiled, and moaned collectively, and clapped when the movie ended (granted, it was 10:15pm opening night, so the house was probably full of ardent fans like me).
Drag Me to Hell manages to combine laughs with spook-show suspense and hideously awesome makeup (horror fans will recognize the work of seminal effects artist Greg Nicotero from a mile away), and the result is a film that feels classic. From the opening credits (the 1980s-era Universal Studios logo precedes the movie) to the storyline (it feels ripped from the 1930s), to the last scene (ah, retribution), it's clear Raimi has returned to the horror fold, and it is good.