Review: Drag Me to Hell
4 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
While giddily watching director Sam Raimi's unabashedly-titled “Drag Me to Hell,” I found myself jotting down a lot of exclamations: Shocking! Fun! Icky! Delightfully over-the-top! A return to form for the man who so famously blended horror and hilarity with his cult-favorite “Evil Dead” trilogy, this gruesome funhouse of a film moves, for the most part, with feverish momentum, continually creeping you out while also cracking you up. For all its goo and gore (which we'll get to in a bit), “Drag” is enormously refreshing, a postmodern fright flick that keenly repurposes damn-near every effective fear factor in the book (we'll get to those, too) to pump some much-needed juice into the bone-dry well that is modern horror. Like the “Evil Dead” titles (and, to a certain degree, Wes Craven's original “Scream”), the secret to the success of “Drag” is that it never takes itself too seriously. Its main goal, which it largely achieves, is to entertain the hell out of you. For the hit-or-miss Raimi (who was due for a rebound following his disappointingly jam-packed franchise stain, “Spider-Man 3”), it is a definite hit, albeit not a grand slam.
“Drag” oozes excitement right from the start, when the director (who also co-wrote the original script with brother Ivan) lays down a throwback tone by resurrecting the old-school, “Jaws”-era Universal logo. He proceeds with a killer preface and a great, freaky folklore-ish title sequence, both of which school the audience on an ancient gypsy curse that invokes the Lamia, a demon recycled from Greek mythology that terrorizes its victims for three days before literally yanking them down to you-know-where. It's a wicked spell that will soon be cast upon Christine Brown (Alison Lohman, dead-on), a kind-hearted but ambitious L.A. loan officer who, in an attempt to get ahead at her bank, refuses to extend the home loan of the wrong crotchety old gypsy, one Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver). Publicly humiliated (Christine calls security when she's manhandled by the old woman who's down on all fours, begging for mercy), Mrs. Ganush summons the Lamia and sends it Christine's way, an act that will have the young bank worker running from murderous shadows, orifice-happy insects and all sorts of other waking nightmares faster than she can say, “repossessed.” While her level-headed and wise-cracking psych. prof. boyfriend (played by Justin Long, of all people) waits in the wings of disbelief, Christine enlists the help of a crafty fortune teller (Dileep Rao), desperately trying to save her soul as the minutes race against her.
In addition to providing edge-of-your-seat suspense that elicits as many eventual laughs of relief as it does initial shrieks of terror (thanks in part to Christopher Young's perfect score), Raimi keeps the gross-out gears grinding throughout. Raver's Mrs. Ganush may well be the most disgusting witch the movies have ever seen (Margaret Hamilton's broom-rider is practically angelic by comparison). Even before she gets medieval on Christine, this vile villain tests your stomach with her brown and brittle fingernails, her slimy denchers, her haunting cataract and the coughing up of unnatural gobs of phlegm. She coughs up plenty more as the film progresses, and uses her gums – yes, gums – as weapons more fearsome than a heavy-duty chainsaw. And it doesn't stop there. “Drag” delivers deliriously twisted gags by the dozen, some involving nosebleeds, others involving goats, all involving hand-over-your-mouth gasps and in-spite-of-yourself giggles. It's the kind of material that may leave squeamish viewers spewing their popcorn back into its bag, but for game moviegoers, it's all part of Raimi's thrill-a-second amusement park ride.
Familiar elements pop up all over this flight of phantasmagoric fancy, and, for once, I say that in the most affectionate sense possible. Rather than resorting to the same old, tired scary movie clichés, Raimi reworks countless foundational staples of the genre to create a satisfying entertainment that is both fresh and comfortably recognizable (you can almost envision the director holding test screenings of famous titles and taking notes on what works and what doesn't). Christine, with her white-trash-farm-girl background and woman-in-a-man's-world circumstances, is a reincarnation of Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling if I ever saw one, made all the more palpable in a wild scene that briefly and brazenly makes a barnyard animal the literal source of her demons. To make you jump, squirm and usually both, the screenwriting bros employ ceiling-slamming levitations (“The Excorcist”), muddy swims with corpses (“Poltergeist”), kitty burials (“Pet Sematary”), straight-from-hell silhouettes (“Ghost”), flies (“The Ring”) and strategically placed voices, wind gusts and bumps in the night. Even the concept of the downward-spiral gypsy curse you can't return is borrowed from “Stephen King's Thinner,” and yet Raimi weaves it all together with a knowing, movie-loving joy that's felt and shared.
I didn't want to have to say this, but there are a few things that cause “Drag” to, well, drag, especially when it hits its third act. First there's Long's character, an obligatory male skeptic whose bone-headed lines (like, “I don't know what I believe in anymore,” and obvious shrink-y nods to Freud and Jung) cramp the movie's madcap style. Conversely, Raimi takes too many liberties in a reigns-free séance scene with Oscar nominee Adriana Barrazza (“Babel”) that proves even a movie as on-the-surface fun as this can be made to look shallow. Most unforgivable is a late-in-the-game twist that isn't a twist at all for anyone who's been paying even the slightest bit of attention. The film tries to trick you and fails, and once you know where it's going, the grip-the-armrest gas it so furiously burned until said point starts to run out. Compared to lesser thrillers (meaning most of them), “Drag” still advances with vigor, and an on-the-nose ending earns big redemptive points, but a rollercoaster with no brakes would have been more exciting. These criticisms, though, are pointed out like smudges on a framed photo that's stop-and-stare excellent. Because Raimi's latest, while not perfect, can easily be called a new horror classic.