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3 out of 4 stars


Drag Me to Hell

  • Directed by Sam Raimi
  • Written by Sam Raimi and Ivan Raimi
  • Starring Alison Lohman and Justin Long
  • Classification: 14A

Long before he directed the Spider-Man trilogy, Sam Raimi won the enduring devotion of cult fans for his slapstick horror trilogy - Evil Dead (1981), Evil Dead II (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992).

Drag Me to Hell is a return to those horror roots, an unabashedly schlocky, expertly executed blend of jack-in-the-box jolts and humour. More polished but similar in its over-the-top spirit to the Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez Grindhouse diptych, Raimi's homage to his auteur beginnings has at least as many laughs as scares, and generous helpings of yucky seepage in between. With a PG-13 rating in the United States, the movie stays well clear of contemporary horror-movie levels of lurid violence.

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After a brief prelude set in 1969, in which we're introduced to the hell-dragging demon, we speed forward to the present. Pert, wide-eyed loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) arrives at her office. She's a formerly pudgy farm girl who's eager to remake herself as a sleek young urban professional. When she tries to persuade her manager (David Paymer) that she's assistant-manager material, she finds herself in competition with a new office suck-up (Reggie Lee). Anxious to demonstrate that she's capable of making "the hard decisions," she refuses a loan to an old woman, Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), allowing the bank to foreclose on her home.

Mrs. Ganush, who has a mottled blind eye, jagged brown false teeth and an accent that would make Boris Karloff shiver, is not the sort of crone you want to cross. An initial confrontation descends into a pitched battle in an underground parking lot involving abuses of office staplers and denture-less gumming. Temporarily defeated, Mrs. Ganush tears a button from Christine's coat, and croaks out a gypsy curse against the unfortunate loan officer's stingy soul.

In the following hours, it's not clear which terrors are in Christine's head and which are real. Apparitions attack, vomit and then disappear. Before Christine can beg forgiveness from Mrs. Ganush, the vengeful old woman dies. Christine is left to rely on her fiancé, Clay (Justin Long), a smug young college professor, and a store-front psychic (Dileep Rao), for help. Most of the script (which was co-written by Raimi and his brother Ivan) consists of Christine being stalked by a mythical demon as she tries to avoid going the way of the movie's title. Shadow fingers reach under doors, invisible forces hurl her against walls and, generally, the movie becomes a series of loud shocks and looming monstrous shapes, culminating in an absurd, carnival-like séance.

Apart from Raver's zestfully grotesque gypsy granny, Drag Me to Hell moves too quickly for any conspicuous displays of acting, although Lohman's transformation from victim to avenger brings some tingles of delight. As she has proved in such movies as Atom Egoyan's Where the Truth Lies and Ridley Scott's Matchstick Men , Lohman has a knack for playing characters who aren't as innocent as they appear.

Raimi works some sly visual comedy around Lohman's petite body and incongruously pillowy cheeks, to suggest a woman who's ready to puff up and explode. At the same time, he plays a fairly sophisticated shell game with the audience's sympathies and our complicity with Christine's dark side.

Though its message of ill-will toward bankers is timely, the values in Drag Me to Hell are retro - it's a morality tale about social ambitions. There's a fine comic scene when Christine meets Clay's ultra-rich, supercilious parents, and she almost wins them over before her grotesque hallucinations spoil dessert. Hosing the office staff with a projectile nose-bleed also raises doubts about Christine's management skills. And how exactly is a fashionable vegetarian supposed to handle the need for a ritual animal sacrifice?

In the Spider-Man movies, Raimi showed a superhero weighed down by his privileges and social duties. In Drag Me to Hell , even a modest ambition for the assistant-manager's office entails great responsibility, and the risk of eternal peril.

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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