Sam Raimi returns to his roots in “Drag Me to Hell,” a flagrantly schlocky horror yarn that will titillate the teens without alienating the director’s far pickier fanboy contingent, who will find the “Evil Dead”-style action they’ve been clamoring for in a surprisingly potent PG-13 package. When the bank forecloses on an old gypsy’s house, it’s the unlucky young loan officer who risks having her soul repossessed in this throwback to both Raimi’s early work and ’50s B-movies. After booking the pic in coveted midnight slots at the SXSW and Cannes fests, Universal should see strong awareness yield heavenly returns.
As its no-nonsense title suggests, “Drag Me to Hell” offers a kicking-and-screaming riff on the classic curse movie — and if the material scarcely warrants feature length, so be it. Scant of plot and barren of subtext, the pic is single-mindedly devoted to pushing the audience’s buttons, and who better than Raimi to do the honors? Long before he went legit with “A Simple Plan,” helmer was perfecting inventive shocks on shoestring budgets, and, as if to remind us of that legacy, he opens this modestly budgeted film (by “Spider-Man” standards, at least) with an early-’80s Universal logo.
First scene further cements the tone, as an innocent boy (though not so innocent as to avoid being cursed) attempts to outrun his imminent damnation, only to be thrown from a balcony and swallowed whole by a gaping, fiery chasm in the earth. It’s hard to imagine such a fate awaiting Christine (Alison Lohman), a sweet young lady gunning for the assistant manager job at her local bank, until we see the almost comically unkempt old hag who comes begging for an extension on her mortgage.
With one bad eye, gnarled fingernails and inexplicably jagged dentures, Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) is clearly the reason Raimi and his brother Ivan decided to write this in the first place. She’s as memorable a villain as Christine is forgettable a heroine, and the fact that Mrs. Ganush means bad business is so evident in her introductory scene that the mere appearance of her car (played by Raimi’s own instantly recognizable 1973 Oldsmobile) in the parking garage is enough to make neck hairs stand on end.
On the losing end of a showdown that makes creative use of a stapler and several other everyday office supplies, Mrs. Ganush manages to grab one of Christine’s buttons and utter a nasty incantation. “Soon it will be you who comes begging to me,” she predicts. But the crusty old crone expires before Christine can ask her to lift the curse, leaving our hell-bent heroine with no one but her skeptical fiance (Justin Long) and an in-over-his-head street-corner psychic (Dileep Rao) to advise her on how to escape her fate.
In the increasingly desperate events that follow, Raimi clearly believes the mouth, not the eyes, are the window to the soul, with one grossout gag after another exploiting auds’ fear of foreign substances (from ominous flies to Mrs. Ganush’s phlegm) entering the mouth. Such off-putting visuals are considerably more effective than Raimi’s next favorite trick, which is to ratchet up the already overloud soundtrack alongside a shock cut.
The scares are all delivered in Raimi’s usual tongue-in-cheek style, down to the menacing goat-like “Lamia” (seen only in cartoonish silhouette, its shape is a direct homage to Jacques Tourneur’s 1957 “Night of the Demon”). It’s odd to find so many laugh-out-loud moments amid such genuine tension, but were it not for Raimi’s comic touch, auds would likely be outraged by a good deal of the material — the fate of Christine’s kitten, for instance, or the movie’s unapologetically backward characterization of gypsies.
Pic seems to have lucked into what little relevance the mortgage crisis lends its story, otherwise so slight as to seem better suited to an hourlong “Masters of Horror” episode. Still, there’s no denying it delivers far more than competing PG-13 thrillers (including several from Raimi’s own Ghost House shingle).
CG touches — including the one that’ll have auds cheering into the end credits — look cheap, but practical effects and makeup are tops.