Where other horror pioneers’ attempts to return to the cinematic styles that earned them their reputations have generally ranged from middling (George Romero’s Land and Diary of the Dead) to embarrassing (Dario Argento’s Mother of Tears), Sam Raimi effortlessly slips back into “spook-a-blast” mode with the outrageously fun Drag Me to Hell. Viewers worried about Raimi’s long absence from the genre need not worry about his directorial touch, nor the PG-13 rating; Raimi has kept many of his trademark flourishes handy in the Spider-Man series anyway (first-person perspectives, Dutch angles), and his Evil Dead films were more about manic entertainment than conspicuous bloodletting.
Hell seemed to be headed for trouble when initial star Ellen Page dropped out due to scheduling issues, but replacement Alison Lohman (Matchstick Men, Beowulf) more than ably fills her shoes as Christine Brown, a loan officer gunning for a newly vacant managerial position at her small-town bank. When her boss (David Paymer) insists that Christine will be forced to make “tough decisions” in order to move up the ladder (with Reggie Lee’s delectably brown-nosing co-worker in hot pursuit of self-fame goal), she decides to bluntly inform an elderly gypsy that the bank will have to foreclose on her home, even after she begs for clemency. In response, the gypsy places an ancient curse on Christine which promises to…well, consult the title.
The key to Raimi’s success here lies not only in the successful return of his patented scare formula, but also some very canny writing, with which he had help from his returning collaborator on the Evil Dead series, brother Ivan. Care is taken to strike the right balance not only with respect to the humor/horror equilibrium, but also with Lohman’s protagonist. A whiny heroine would have been disastrous, while an overly confident one would have sunk the film’s many comic setpieces. Instead, Christine is allowed to be headstrong as well as frightened, and most importantly, is made to own her decisions – a key element in a movie where moral predicaments serve as principal plot thrusts, particularly in the final reels. Sterling support is provided by Justin Long as Christine’s loving boyfriend – in another remarkable touch, their relationship is neither cutesy nor implausible, engendering genuine hope that they’ll pull through Raimi’s ghoulish gauntlets.
But really, it’s the old-fashioned surreal, funny spook sequences that make the film tick, and by forgoing ’00s horror mores and relying on devilish editing and mostly practical visual effects (save for an almost disastrous opening sequence), Raimi is able to successfully mine territory he left behind many years ago without tarnishing what came before. He’ll be heading back into Spider-Man territory before long, but here’s hoping he doesn’t stay away from his old stomping grounds quite this long next time.