I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a movie that has more sheer cinematic energy than Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. It’s in the cutting and the camera moves, but also in the cacophonous, claustrophobic staging — he manages to put you in that little cabin out in the woods with the zombie girl locked in the cellar and all hell about to break loose. (The flamboyantly comic Evil Dead II, with such flourishes as its flying-eyeball tracking shot, is generally more prized by movie buffs but, Bruce Campbell signature schtick aside, I much prefer the grim original.) The first two Spider-Man movies are fine, but Raimi’s traveled a long way in general from the kind of craziness that made his reputation and on which he built his career.
That’s one reason why the back-to-basics Drag Me to Hell is such a kick. One early scene set in a parking garage — but mainly in and around a little sedan owned by an equally tiny Christine Brown (Alison Lohman, embodying the pale blond ingénue so perfectly that it’s hard at first to imagine someone wanting to drag her to Hell) — is so full of frantically constricted action that the jolt it delivers makes you forget that what’s happening doesn’t, really, make a whole lot of sense. That’s OK — for a few minutes there, in the multiplex with Raimi and crew (including longtime collaborators like DP Peter Deming and film editor Bob Murawski), it feels like old times.
Like Stuart Gordon’s Stuck, which used homelessness and careerism as twin springboards for a horror film about the down job market, Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell manages to capitalize on the miserable housing market to make the first scary movie about the mortgage crisis. Christine is a bank loan officer with an inferiority complex related to her not-too-distant corn-fed past and her sights set on a lucrative promotion. She manages to demonstrate her ruthlessness by denying desperate, bedentured old Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) an extension on her house payments, apparently ensuring foreclosure. But, darn the luck, said homeowner happens to be a proud old Gypsy with curses on her mind. With the help of a kindly fortune-teller (Dileep Rao), Christine quickly learns that she has just three days before a demon called the Lamia plucks her from the land of the living and deposit her in the fiery pits of Hell.
It’s a threadbare story, and Raimi is hardly concerned with maintaining any kind of low-key suspense. Instead, he plays to the rafters, cranking up the volume and going for as many quick shocks and gross-outs as he can cram into a PG-13 movie. Ganush is quickly revealed as a formidable biddy indeed, with supernatural strength, a bellyful of phlegm, and a predilection for enthusiastic gumming of her adversaries. There’s a nightmare sequence, a gushing nosebleed, and a talking goat that calls Christine a b-i-i-i-i-i-tch during a seance. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie. The outré flourishes really count, because there’s a little too much wheel-spinning going on as Christine takes increasingly desperate (but similarly futile) measures to ward off that singleminded Lamia with her name on it. Her romantic co-star Justin Long, for instance, seems to be a black hole from which no cinematic energy can escape. An obvious plot device involving a mislaid envelope is as hokey as anything in the Spider-Man movies, but it’s what Raimi does with the opportunity that matters — Christine gets the chance to consider who she might send to Hell in her place as the film builds to a rousing, highly satisfactory climax.
Raimi eschews grueling, over-the-top violence/gore here (even though Evil Dead really set the pace for that kind of thing), as well as the scowling, J-horror-influenced attempts at sustained creepiness that characterize so many Hollywood wannabes. Instead, Drag Me to Hell is confident, breezy and resonant — a straight-up old-school action-horror film with some scares, some gross-outs, and an obvious (but not off-putting) moral lesson.