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Friday, Oct. 30, 2009

'Drag Me to Hell'

Raimi dumps the superhero and is back to evil basics


Once upon a time Sam Raimi wasn't the boring, franchise-friendly director on display in those anemic "Spiderman" movies. No, Raimi started out as a wild man of excess; his debut film, 1984's "The Evil Dead," was a slavering undead movie that went far, far beyond all previous limits of taste or imagination.

Drag Me to Hell Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
MOVIES
Fright night: Alison Lohman delivers a jaw-dropping performance in "Drag Me to Hell."

Director: Sam Raimi
Running time: 105 minutes
Language: English
Opens Nov. 6, 2009
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Having hit us with one of the most disturbing and terrifying films ever made, Raimi followed it up with the even crazier "Evil Dead 2" (1987), which starts out looking like it will be even scarier before suddenly morphing into an outrageous parody of itself. By the third installment, the amazingly under-rated "Army of Darkness" (1992), Raimi had perfected his signature style of Three Stooges slapstick mixed with sick, sick, sick cartoon splatter.

Mid-career saw the director as journeyman: Raimi turned in arch, comic-book pastiche with a superhero no one had ever heard of in "Darkman" (1990), and a hyper-Western romp in "The Quick and The Dead" (1995); he tried his hand at more traditional suspense with "A Simple Plan" (1998, excellent) and "The Gift" (2000, less so), and even helmed a Kevin Costner baseball flick ("For Love of the Game," 1999). Then along came "Spiderman," mass success, and the utter dilution of all that made Raimi interesting.

Let's give credit where it's due, though: Raimi has parlayed his post-Spidey clout into green-lighting a return to horror, dusting off an old script by his brother Ivan, and making it into a kick-ass fright-fest that just wipes the floor with all those perverted old torture-porn flicks.

Welcome to "Drag Me To Hell," a film that's as brilliantly blunt as its title. Alison Lohman plays a bright young thing named Christine who — as the film's tagline puts it — "has a good job, a great boyfriend, and a bright future. But in three days, she's going to Hell!"

Her problem comes from her job as a loan officer at a bank; Christine's in danger of being passed over for a promotion, and feeling insecure, decides to get tough with a customer who has defaulted on her mortgage, thus proving to her boss (David Paymer) that she can make cold business decisions.

Of course, if you have to screw someone, probably the demented-looking old gypsy woman (Lorna Raver) who's hawking up green phlegm is not your best bet. "You shamed me!" screams witch-lady, and thus begin Christine's troubles: The old woman puts an ancient curse on Christine, which will lead to three days of horrific hallucinations and poltergeist torment, with the kicker being a horned spirit called The Lamia that comes to claim her soul.

Soon, Christine is plagued by enough bad spooky stuff to make "The Exorcist" seem like a day in the park; her caring boyfriend (Justin Long), as partners are wont to do in these sort of films, doesn't really believe that anything is amiss. But the fortuneteller she visits, Rham Jas (Dileep Rao), freaks out, and is soon coaching her on how to remove curses, which it turns out, is easier said than done.

Raimi works with classic horror movie ingredients — the evil old crone, creaky floorboards, a screeching iron gate, a cemetery at night, a seance in an old house — and still manages to scare the bejeezus out of you with each and every one. He's also a master of inducing that queasy, stomach-churning feeling, like when a corpse falls on Christine and the embalming fluid pours out of its mouth into hers.

Like in the "Evil Dead" movies, though, Raimi also manages to make you laugh at the most unexpected moments; only Raimi would have a fly buzzing around inside his heroine's stomach, or a beserk reanimated corpse dispatched by dropping an anvil on its head (with its eyes popping out of its head like some old Max Fleischer cartoon, just to take it completely over-the-top.)

"Drag Me To Hell" is great fun in a "Haunted Mansion" kind of way, a spook-house designed to make you jump with fright and squirm with tension. Whether it's anything more than that is doubtful, but then again, neither was "Psycho," and that's considered a classic of American cinema nowadays.


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