29 May 2009

Drag Me to Hell

The actress Alison Lohman is 29, six years removed from playing the 14-year-old daughter of Nicolas Cage in Matchstick Men, and she’ll probably still be able to pull it off a decade from now. She projects innocence and seems so delicate a mere touch might break her.

So while watching Drag Me to Hell, you can all but hear the mischievous cackling of director Sam Raimi and his trusted makeup artist Greg Nicotero as they drench her with blood and other, even less pleasant fluids, throw her into walls, turn her into a punching bag for an old gypsy—essentially subjecting her to one abuse after another through most of the movie’s 99 minutes.

Though hardcore Raimi fans would prefer to see Bruce Campbell taking the punishment in Evil Dead 4 (not gonna happen), “Drag Me to Hell” is a movie cut from the same cloth. Promoting it as a film by the director of Spider-Man feels a bit disingenuous. Those blockbusters are important here, however, as they have given Raimi, who co-wrote the script with his brother Ivan, both the creative freedom and studio backing to make a horror movie with first-rate production values. This isn’t The Evil Dead (1981), in which the hokey effects could not be played for anything other than laughs.

The Raimi of Drag Me to Hell is a more mature filmmaker—but only to a certain point; after all, a gypsy’s eyeballs pop out of her head when she’s crushed by an anvil and embalming fluid pours from a corpse’s mouth directly onto Lohman’s face.

Lohman is loan officer Christine Brown. Her boyfriend is college professor Clay Dalton (Justin Long), and she’s in line for a promotion to assistant manager. When her boss tells her he’s looking for someone who can make the tough decisions, she denies the sickly old gypsy woman Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) an extension on her loan, ensuring she loses her home.

Mrs. Ganush doesn’t go quietly, first dropping to her knees and begging for the extension, then attacking and cursing Christine in a parking garage.

All manner of weird things start happening to Christine in the days that follow, most involving blood or some other icky substance. Desperate, she consults a seer (Dileep Rao), who clues her in on what’s happening to her.

For all the reasons I stated earlier, Lohman is an ideal horror movie heroine. Beneath all the torment she endures, she creates a real character, a rooting interest who earns our sympathy.

Clay is suitably skeptical—wouldn’t you be, too?—when Christine starts acting a little odd, and Long brings just the right touch of sarcastic humor to the role.

While the camp and slapstick of the Evil Dead trilogy are absent, Raimi doesn’t weigh the movie down with the somber, self-serious tone of many other recent entries in the genre. Though it plays it straight, the movie has some fun with its premise and characters.

Given the substantial drop-off in quality between Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3, Raimi obviously needed a detour before heading back into that world for part four. Drag Me to Hell is a road any fan of the filmmaker will want to take.

Grade: B+

Rated PG-13 for sequences of horror violence, terror, disturbing images and language. 99 minutes.)

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