Drag Me To Hell sees Sam Raimi return to his directing roots after almost 10 years of doing nothing but movies with Spider-Man in the title. He's kept his hand in the genre on a producing level (with movies like The Grudge, 30 Days of Night, and Boogeyman), but this is the first horror movie that he's directed since 2000's The Gift. And what a triumphant return it is. This is a frantic, exhilarating, genuinely frightening experience that keeps you on edge even when little is happening on-screen. Now this is how horror should be done.
Drag Me To Hell follows Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), a bank loan advisor who is forced, through want of a promotion, to make "the tough decision" of denying an old woman an extension on her mortgage. When she does this, the old woman feels shamed enough that she attacks Christine and then puts a curse on her, damning her to a life of being tormented by evil, supernatural creatures. In her desperation, Christine tries everything she can to break the curse, including visiting a psychic, before it's too late.
A lot of people, myself included, were sad to see Raimi take a hiatus from horror simply because with the first two Evil Dead movies (and to an extent the third, Army of Darkness) he solidified himself as one of the best in the business at the genre. Although he has given us two great comic book movies with the first two Spider-Man films (the third.. let's just say wasn't so great; but two out of three ain't bad), those who loved what he did with the Evil Dead series have longed for a return. And with Drag Me To Hell he has returned with a bang… and a splash… and a wallop. This is horror-filled entertainment at its best, with an insanely breezy pace, and some of the best jump scares in recent cinematic history.
The genre device of jump scares is employed in pretty much every offering these days, and seldom is it done right. Either they are not executed correctly and thus aren't effective, or they are employed so much (see the recent Haunting in Connecticut as an example) that we become desensitized not long into the movie. But Raimi manages here to strike the right balance. The result is that we jump at every noise, darting our eyes from corner to corner of the screen to check that something isn't going to suddenly jump out at the characters. The movie keeps us paranoid and genuinely afraid throughout.
In classic Raimi style, there's also an element of comedy thrown into the mix here. The Evil Dead series was as much about the laughs (in a darkly comedic sort of way) as it was about the disgusting horror visuals and noises, and that is present throughout Drag Me To Hell. It's never a full-on comedy in that it could be labeled as such, but there are moments scattered throughout that are funny in that uncomfortable, "you really shouldn't be laughing right now" kind of way, and even moments that are chuckle-worthy just because of how ridiculous they are. It's a strange mix Raimi and his co-writing brother, Ivan, have concocted here, but it works fantastically.
As well as being about demons and curses and old ladies attacking you with their jagged false teeth (a parking lot attack scene is the heart-stopping film highlight), it also pays attention to other things — true-to-life things such as aspirations of moving up the career ladder, trying not to disappoint the partner's rich, high-expectation parents, and trying to be a good person in life. The latter plays a pivotal part in the horror storyline where Christine's reluctance to turn down the old lady for her mortgage extension has her wrestling with caving in and just giving her the extension anyway. These extra dramatic elements give the movie a lot of backbone; when the horror element takes a break for a little while there are things going on that actually make you care about the characters as opposed to seeing them as disposable meat for the evil killer.
It probably isn't entirely fair to criticize such an effective horror movie on the basis of acting, but it's the only real thing that sticks out as a negative. Lohman is adequate as Christine – all she really needs to do is act convincingly scared and she does as needed. Justin Long as her boyfriend isn't the greatest (I really don't know why he was chosen for the role), but he's not weak enough to drag the movie to hell (I know, I know – I just couldn't resist). However, something tells me some of the cheesier acting moments and lines of dialogue might be what Raimi sees as part of the fun — part of the horror-comedy combo. In that case, I suppose that can be overlooked.
Right off the bat, Drag Me To Hell sets itself up as a no-messing, full-on horror thrill ride and it keeps that pace consistent pretty much throughout the whole thing. Raimi stretches the 15 (PG-13 in the US) rating at every point in turn with over-the-top gory effects, and keeps the thing whizzing along because of a quick, breezy pace and a very welcome, lean 99 minute run time which keeps the whole from becoming tiresome. And tiresome is a word that definitely can't be used to describe Drag Me To Hell. It's an inventive, inspired, well-made film that proves that amongst the sea of Japanese-to-American remakes and cheap teen slashers, the horror genre is truly alive and well in Hollywood today.