Undead again: Sam Raimi returns to his fanboy roots in "Drag Me to Hell."

Raimi's Return to Horror: Drag Me to Hell

Dennis Harvey May 29, 2009

For Jackson that meant a King Kong remake that demonstrated the hazards of being able to get (or create) any toy you want: It would have been sooooo much better if he’d had about one hour and $75 million less to indulge himself with.

To his credit, Raimi’s gone in the opposite direction with his first post- Spider-Man effort, making a (relatively) low-budget, marquee-star-less comedy horror movie like the ones he and Jackson first made their names on. Which in his case means one thing, as thousands of frothing fanboys and fangirls will be happy to tell you: EVIL DEAD!!!

His original 1981 no-budget debut feature, made with friends in native Michigan, and its more expansive 1987 sequel (Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn) are manic, gleefully derivative, gory, ridiculous and wonderful. They are avowals of love for bottom-dwelling-genre movies for which no guilty-pleasure excuses need be made. I’ve seen them both a zillion times, and like them no less (or more shamefully) than, say, very High Art favorites by Sokurov or Bertolucci.

Drag Me to Hell
was, in fact, written by Sam and brother Ivan just after 1992’s Army of Darkness, the overstuffed and problematic third Evil Dead film. But it got set aside as the director spent a decade trying to figure out his place in the Hollywood mainstream. That period resulted in accomplished but not quite bulls-eye stabs at the suspense melodrama (A Simple Plan), revisionist western (The Quick and the Dead), Kevin Costner baseball flick (For the Love of the Game) and supernatural thriller (The Gift), plus a preliminary run at superhero-dom (Darkman).

Now he can do whatever he wants. After the pricey pressures of a major franchise, what he wants is apparently some no-brainer fun. Ergo it’s back to Drag Me, which has no pretentions toward anything but delivering a willfully cheesy good time with laughs, scares and combinations of both.

After the requisite prologue depicting a past horror (lesson: Little boys should never, ever steal jewelry from spell-casting gypsies), we meet pretty young Pasadena resident Christine Brown (Alison Lohman). She’s got a nice house, a nice boyfriend (Justin Long), and is, well, very nice. But she’s also a little insecure, not just about meeting his snobbish mother but about her bank job, since new coworker Stu (Reggie Lee) is currently backstabbing and ass-kissing his way into the assistant manager position she deserves.

To prove she’s capable of making "tough decisions," the normally soft-hearted Christine denies another mortgage payment extension to gnarly old crone Mrs. Ganesh (the aptly named Lorna Raver), who does not exactly accept the prospect of losing her home with grace.

Indeed, during a further over-the-top confrontation after work in the parking lot, Mrs. G. lays a curse on our heroine. Pretty soon Christine’s life is full of very unpleasant surprises, as a shadowy, cloven-footed, horned demon seems bent on making her future eternally crispy.

Drag Me to Hell
has "Boo!" moments aplenty, including such PG-13 grossouts as a projectile nose bleed, eyeball in the dessert plate, and maggoty vomit. It’s got a seance (with talking billy goat), a possessed lace handkerchief (featured in some particularly witty FX), musical snippets borrowed from The Exorcist and Ennio Morricone, and a whole lotta on/offscreen Raimis—including fan-beloved younger bro Ted doing a cameo.

It’s certainly fun, if perhaps a little too much on the silly side in the end. One problem is that anyone not caught napping will see the final twist coming a mile away. Another is baby-faced Lohman, who’s OK but doesn’t rise to the comic potential in her character’s incredulous terror. Ellen Page was originally cast, then had to pull out over a scheduling conflict. I’ve gotten tired of Page doing the same Juno smartypants act in too many roles, but here that snappy delivery and self-conscious edge might have done for Drag Me what Bruce Campbell’s gonzo genius did for the Evil Deads—embrace and amplify its absurdities to knock the whole thing out of the ballpark.

Despite these flaws, some story continuity gaps, and a few other things to nitpick, Drag Me to Hell offers the pleasures of a first-class entertainer thoroughly enjoying himself. (You can sense Raimi’s joy in laboring over the sound mix, which is a Dolby delight.) And it looks like this is no one-time rebound to formative fanboy territory: Spider-Man 4 is duly moving ahead, but there are also undying rumors that a new Evil Dead flick is also on the boards. Which isn’t so shocking, if you think about it. After all, it’s always easier to kill off a man in red leotards than it is to finish off the undead.