'Drag Me to Hell'

By Peter Martin (original publication date: 3/16/09 -- SXSW Film Festival)

Don't f*** with old ladies, especially if they have bad teeth and an evil curse up their sleeve. If there's anything new to be learned from Drag Me to Hell, director Sam Raimi's return to horror, it's that loan officers will have hell to pay if they dare to foreclose on your mortgage. It's a lesson that should make everyone stand up and cheer.

The film screened as a "work in progress" late last night at the completely packed Paramount Theater in Austin to a loud, raucous reaction. Some of the finer technical points clearly remain to be tweaked (sound, visual effects, maybe a little editing here and there) and end credits need to be added before its wide theatrical release on May 29. And in its present version, the ratings issue is still cloudy -- PG-13 or R?

But this much is clear: Raimi has made a joyful romp through his personal horror playground and come up with a very entertaining horror-comedy that gets back to the basics. By that I mean creepy shadows on the wall and things that go bump in the night: all the odd, unexplained sights and sounds that keep anxious children awake at night, hiding under the covers. Any inkling that Raimi's soul might have been irretrievably chewed up by the Hollywood studio machinery -- a well-founded concern after the disappointing Spider-Man 3 -- quickly evaporates once the story gets underway.



Christine (Alison Lohman) is a loan officer at a financial institution in Los Angeles, up for a promotion to assistant branch manager. Her boss, Mr. Jacks (David Paymer), tells her he's trying to decide between her and the obsequious Stu (Reggie Lee), but he's not sure if Christine can make the "tough decisions." Her crisis of self-confidence builds when she overhears a telephone conversation between her successful boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) and his mother, who complains that Christine isn't good enough for her son.

So when the elderly, Eastern European Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) hobbles into the office asking for yet another extension on her mortgage payment, Christine is primed to go against her kindlier instincts and demonstrate she can finally make the "tough decisions" and get that promotion. Shocked that she will lose her longtime home, Mrs. Ganush gets down on her knees to beg for help. After Christine rejects her pleas yet again, she points at Christine and cries out: "You have shamed me!" Uh oh, we know that can't be good, and Christine soon regrets her tough decision.

Horror fans expecting (or hoping for) an explicitly violent show will be disappointed. Drag Me to Hell is more a 50s horror comic than an 80s slasher flick. As it now stands, it's leaning far more toward PG-13 than R. I don't recall a single f-bomb, noticed only one line that sounded like a harsher obscenity had been dubbed out, and observed no sex or nudity. Certain visual effects shots are incomplete, and, conceivably, some scenes could easily become blood baths, more or less. Other shots might be adjusted, depending on what rating is desired, to minimize or increase the blood, gore, and gruesome bodily fluids that are expelled from various orifices.

Does that mean that Raimi has softened or compromised his vision? Not at all. The film still has more than its share of outlandish, gross-out moments, they just don't happen to be of the R-rated variety -- as far as I could see, anyway.

The spine of the story revolves around Christine and her increasingly desperate attempts to get out from under the curse that Mrs. Ganush has placed upon her. Christine learns from a fortune teller (Dileep Rao) that the curse has summoned forth an evil spirit which will torment her for three days before arriving in person, so to speak, and literally drag her down to the fiery depths of Hell.

Some of the most effective scenes emerge from a single shot: a fly on the face of a sleeping woman, fingers tapping on a flat surface, a well-placed wall poster. Obviously, Raimi is not the same man he was when he made The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II in his 20s. He's matured and grown as an artist and filmmaker. Drag Me to Hell has references to his earliest films, while using a minimum of juiced-up shots and crazy angles (as in Darkman, Army of Darkness, and The Quick and the Dead) and incorporating some of the gliding, graceful beauty found in his trio of more straightforward, "serious" projects (A Simple Plan, For Love of the Game, and The Gift).

Most of the plot twists are familiar in concept to any fan of ghost movies, but Raimi comes up with clever ways to add a flourish here or there. Alison Lohman may not have been Raimi's first choice for the role of Christine (Ellen Page had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts), yet she brings plenty of likable, spunky energy to the part. Justin Long plays a pretty passive, almost effete boyfriend, a role he handles quite naturally. Lorna Raver is suitably Old World as the unpleasant Mrs. Ganush. Reggie Lee delivers a spot-on performance as the secretly-plotting rival for Christine's coveted position.

Watching Drag Me to Hell felt like watching an old friend relax and stretch his muscles. Welcome back to the realm of horror, Mr. Raimi, and thanks for making a convulsively funny movie with chills and thrills, suffused with genuine affection for the genre.