It would be hard to improve on “Drag Me to Hell” as the title of a horror film, and even harder to improve on the film itself. Directed by Sam Raimi and written by him and his usual writing partner, his brother Ivan, it’s outrageously dark and twisted in the most delightful ways, a frenetic funhouse of terrors that causes almost as much laughter as pants-wetting. In other words, it’s a near-perfect distillation of everything that has made Raimi such a highly praised filmmaker for almost three decades.
“Drag Me to Hell” has been hailed as Raimi’s return to his roots (his first feature was “The Evil Dead”), but it’s more accurately a return to something even older: the horror comic books of the 1950s. Best exemplified by the “Tales from the Crypt” series, these stories had outlandish titles like “Death Must Come!” and “The Thing from the Grave!” and had the simplicity of campfire tales. They tended to be gory, tinged with humor, and focused on basic concepts like jealousy and retribution. Publisher William M. Gaines (who would later found MAD Magazine) once got a story where a boy who was obsessed with sharpening pencils was set upon by angry pencils that exacted their revenge on him. Gaines rejected the story, but he admitted the writer understood the basic formula: “You sharpen the pencils, the pencils sharpen your head.”
That’s what “Drag Me to Hell” is all about. A principled young bank officer named Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) gets the idea from her boss (David Paymer) that if she wants to be promoted, she needs to make “the hard decisions.” What he means is that she needs to turn down more loan applications and be less forgiving of debtors’ excuses. She doesn’t feel right about it, but she needs the promotion.
Because simplicity is the key here, the very next customer she deals with is an ancient, gnarled woman of Eastern European extraction, Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), who is several payments behind on her mortgage and just as lax in her hygiene. She wants more time to pay up. Christine, under the scrutiny of her boss, says no. Mrs. Ganush begs, literally, on her knees and pleading. Christine says no. Mrs. Ganush causes a scene and must be escorted from the bank by security officers, then confronts Christine later in the parking garage, in a scene that perfectly encapsulates Raimi’s gift for mixing terrible violence and dark comedy.
Somewhere in all this, Mrs. Ganush places a curse on Christine, a good old-fashioned gypsy hex, the upshot of which is that in three days, Christine Brown will be dragged to hell. Since the film is unabashedly a supernatural thriller, no attempt is made to convince us that any of the spooky things that happen next have real-world plausibility. You must accept the premise of gypsy curses (and, of course, seances, mediums, and fortune tellers), just as you accept sitting in roller coaster car to take a ride on the Matterhorn.
I can’t imagine viewers getting too hung up on the basics, though. They’ll be enjoying themselves too much. As the fiends of hell begin their pursuit of Christine, she turns to her boyfriend (Justin Long), who starts out thinking she’s crazy but becomes a true believer soon enough. Experts in the occult are consulted, including a seer named Rham Jas (Dileep Rao). A goat is involved. Through it all, Raimi is fearless when it comes to doing things you wouldn’t expect in a PG-13-rated horror film. The old unwritten rule about children and animals being safe from harm is discarded. Alarming things happen in gooey ways. Sometimes the line between laughing at Raimi’s audacious, wicked sense of humor and gripping the armrest in fear is almost invisible.
And yet it’s not a gory film. It pushes the limits of the PG-13 rating, perhaps, but it doesn’t revel in gruesomeness. You get the sense that Raimi finds it all funny — he’s not trying to impress you with how cool he is; he’s just having a good time. That spirit is infectious. The cast members are all game for anything — poor old Lorna Raver takes a stapler to the forehead like a pro, and Alison Lohman is constantly being drenched with one thing or another — and their enthusiasm carries the day. I don’t remember the last time I derived so much pleasure from being so scared, but it’s been too long. As long as it’s done with such wit and panache, Sam Raimi has a standing invitation to terrify me anytime he chooses.
A- (1 hr., 39 min.; )