Retro Review: DRAG ME TO HELL (2009){0}

For those who were worried that filmmaker Sam Raimi had become lost in the wilds of big-budget Hollywood, well, you can rest easy. To those who hold a very special fondness for Mr. Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy, his latest film represents a powerfully welcome return to the horror genre — and it’s evident after only 10 minutes of Drag Me to Hell that Raimi still holds a lot of love for the horror genre. Better still, the man is still able to tap into the creepy, the nasty, the violent, and the unpleasant … while always maintaining a wonderfully welcome tongue-in-cheek attitude.

Shot like an old EC horror comic brought to life, Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell is not only one of the most entertaining and accessible studio horror films of the past several years, it’s proof that your horror flick doesn’t have to be “hard R” to deliver the chills. It’s important to note that the version we saw last night at the SXSW Film Festival is still a “work in progress,” but it looked pretty dang finished to me. (RUMOR has it that the studio is still making some last-minute and minor alterations, but I say this meal is cooked. Serve it!) Drag Me to Hell is a Creepshow installment, a high-end episode of Tales from the Crypt, a mid-’80s-style crowd-pleaser that doles out horror with a smirk and gore with a smile. This is a film indicative of a writer/director who is having FUN settling back into a comfortable old genre — and for those who’ve been along for the ride from the early days, Drag Me to Hell is an absolute treat for the genre faithful.

The plot is an admirably old-fashioned campfire tale: A pretty young bank officer (Alison Lohman) is desperate for a promotion, so she adopts a hard edge when a creepy old lady wanders in looking for a loan extension. The end result is that poor Christine gets hit with the nastiest gypsy curse since Stephen King’s Thinner: She’s about to suffer through three days of sheer terror before she gets, of course, dragged down to hell. (Yikes, remind me to always be nice to poverty-stricken gypsies!) There are a few sacrifices that could help Christine to avoid her horrific fate, but of course she’s too nice a person to trick someone ELSE into an eternity in hell. Or is she?

The plot is only as complex as Raimi (and his brother / co-writer) needs it to be, which affords Drag Me to Hell a lean frame, a quick pace, and a consistently expeditious presentation. For example, Christine has a longtime boyfriend (played by Justin Long) who, as a movie character, serves numerous purposes, but he’s never onscreen when it doesn’t serve Christine’s story. The Raimi brothers set up their plot and their character development with remarkable efficiency, and then they spend the next 75 minutes compelling you to clap, cheer, shriek, jolt, and squirm around in your seat a little bit.

Drag Me to Hell has five or six sequences of grade-A quality horror, a great performance by Ms. Lohman, and a few nice twists, but (and this is the best part) the flick is much more than just the sum of a few icky parts. Like the best horror stories, some of the ingredients are a little familiar, and like the finest horror films, those ingredients are brought to the screen with a decidedly unique vision. If you’re an old-school fan of Raimi’s visual trickery, you’ll have no shortage of fun with Drag Me to Hell, but if you’re just looking for an old-fashioned scary story that’s a little gross, a little silly, and entirely entertaining, this is bound to be one of the year’s finest genre offerings.

Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another 20+ years for another Sam Raimi horror film.