Go to Hell

Sam Raimi can still scare you silly.

Lorna Raver as Mrs. Ganush in Drag Me To Hell

Sam Raimi and Ivan Raimi must have been blessed at birth by benevolent Gypsies, because the filmmaking brothers (Ivan writes; Sam directs) have had a cosmic stroke of luck with the timing of the release of their brilliantly nasty little horror film Drag Me To Hell (Universal Studios). With the advent of the economic downturn, this bloody tale of bank loans and home foreclosure can be read as an allegory for our times, lending it a soupçon of highbrow cred. But the best reasons for loving this movie are all lowbrow and shamelessly ahistorical: It’s gory, consistently scream-inducing, and funny as, well, hell.

Christine (Alison Lohman) is a pert, blond loan officer at a Los Angeles bank. She’s bright and ambitious (though, we note in some deftly sketched character details, still insecure about her origins as a chubby farm girl), and she has the perfect boyfriend: a smart, rich college professor who’s desperately devoted to her (and played by the endearing Justin Long, who—sorry, Justin—will always be the Mac guy to me). Christine is angling for a promotion at work, but her boss (David Paymer) makes it clear that to get it, she’ll have start “making some tough decisions” about unpaid loans (read: cutting people off). And her archrival for the position, the unctuous Stu (Reggie Lee) is treating her as if he’s already her boss.

Just at that moment, a half-blind old Hungarian woman, Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), shows up at Christine’s desk, first asking, then begging, for a third extension on her mortgage payment. I think you see where this is going: To please her boss, Christine grits her teeth and forces herself to say no to the piteous woman’s request. Memo to self in bold font: Never do this. Give the Gypsy lady more time.

Christine ignores that advice, and Mrs. Ganush responds by invoking the ancient curse of the lamia, which, an Indian-American fortuneteller (Dileep Rao) helpfully explains, means that after three days of terrifying visions she will be dragged by a demon down to hell.

The frantic machinations by which Christine seeks to forestall this fate make up most of the film: She reads up on occult spells, pawns all her earthly goods to pay for the services of a medium (Adriana Barraza), and performs acts that she never knew she was capable of (and that this viewer never knew she was capable of laughing at). Raimi’s scare tactics can be a bit too dependent on abundantly spewed gross substances. (For example: Is being repeatedly soaked by embalming fluid while trapped under a corpse really that scary? Isn’t the scary part the fact that you’re lying under a corpse?) But when Raimi stages a good old-fashioned suspense scene—what’s that shadow against the curtain? who’s coming up the stairs? oh, God, is the doorknob turning?—he has no peer.

Even those things in Drag Me to Hell that read as cheesy—Alison Lohman’s glassy-eyed stare or Christopher Young’s string-heavy, Psycho-esque score—work perfectly and seem deliberate on Raimi’s part. He started off as a director of the ludicrously over-the-top Evil Dead series, whose weird alchemy of horror and humor has wielded enormous (and at times, pernicious) influence over subsequent masters of gore. Drag Me owes less to contemporary horror-film grammar (“extreme” Japanese horror, sadistic Saw-style butchery, etc.) than it does to the thrillers of the ‘70s and ‘80s. It harkens back to the kind of scary movies that seem almost innocent now with their earnest occult mumbo-jumbo (think The Exorcist) and terrified but plucky heroines (think Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween). Drag Me’s production values are far nicer than those of the Evil Dead movies, but beneath its moderately plushy exterior beats that same telltale heart.

For the last seven years, Raimi’s been busy making the posh Spidermanmovies—his next installment is scheduled for 2011—and I hope he keeps doing so, as that franchise would lose what panache it still possesses without him at the helm. But in between Champagne toasts with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst atop heaping mounds of money, Raimi should go slumming more often. It’s a pleasure to follow him to hell—and back? You’ll see.

Slate V: The critics on Drag Me to Hell and other new movies