Long before he brought Spider-Man to vivid life, director Sam Raimi specialized in raising the dead. As a young horror auteur, Raimi's Evil Dead movies were cheeky, invigorating, horrifying, and grueling. Raimi tweaked genre conventions with slapstick humor to make movies that were as funny as they were scary and disgusting. In Drag Me To Hell, Raimi takes a break from mega-blockbuster superhero movies to return to his prime, evil roots. He's still got it. Drag Me To Hell is scary, creepy horror that's also funny and deeply disgusting.
The victim this time around is Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), a kindly young bank loan officer. Christine is hoping for a promotion to assistant manager, but her boss tells her she's a bit too soft for such a tough job. To prove her mettle, Christine turns down an old one-eyed gypsy woman who pleads for one more extension on her mortgage payment, lest she lose her home of many years. Old Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) has fallen on hard times, but this is not a story about banks that give risky mortgages to people with no money. That would be a different kind of horror movie.
Christine may know banking, but she's not savvy about avoiding impending doom. Never rebuff an old, one-eyed gypsy crone, or you are just asking for trouble. Although she turns the old lady down in the nicest possible way, trouble is what Christine gets, when icky, unforgiving Mrs. Ganush, with her gnarly, scabrous fingers and rotten dentures, lays a curse on her. Much screaming follows, and eruptions of bodily fluids, and grueling punishment as an evil spirit stalks Christine and prepares to... drag her to hell.
Being tormented by demons and then dragged to eternal hellfire may be a bit severe as punishment for a moment of modest career ambition and less-than-nicetude, but the lack of proportionality is a necessity in horror, so long as the audience is to sympathize with the victim and learn a valuable lesson about avoiding terrible curses. Be nice to old gypsy crones, don't open mysterious doors, don't look in the box, and don't think for a minute that some flimsy old lock on some flimsy old door will keep the demons at bay, or you will pay dearly. Christine has three days before her goose is cooked, according to Rham Jas (Dileep Rao), the Indian mystic she consults. Rham Jas accepts American Express, and turns out to be quite knowledgeable about gypsy curses, and proceeds to assist Christine in her strenuous efforts to escape her fate. Christine's skeptical boyfriend Clay Dalton (Justin Long), a psychology professor, is supportive but not much help as wind, insects and creepy shadows repeatedly assault Christine and mess up her house. Bad things happen. Most, but not all of them, happen to Christine. Suffice it to say that if someone you know is cursed, you might do well to keep your distance for, say, three days or so. Texting and Tweeting are almost as good as being there, and a lot safer.
The horror genre has been, of late, overrun with torture porn and soggy remakes of Japanese horror flicks. Raimi's an old school, DIY kinda horror filmmaker, and he makes excellent use of all the old tricks in the horror arsenal. Shrieking violins, moaning breezes, menacing shadows, blowing curtains, curling smoke, and flash cuts all prove to be as effective as any newfangled computer generated special effects in evoking dread and raising goose bumps. Retro creeps notwithstanding, Raimi (who cowrote the screenplay with his brother Ivan Raimi) is not above adding maggots and gore to the mix, or to defiling corpses in ways both comical and repulsive. Drag Me To Hell is part Nosferatu, part Exorcist, part Looney Tunes, because Raimi's the kind of filmmaker who insists that after you scream, you must also laugh.