Sam Raimi's Drag Me To Hell may not be the "best" film you'll see this summer--you may see other pictures that are slicker, or smarter, or more professional. But it's certainly the most fun you'll have in a theater any time in the foreseeable future. It marks Raimi's welcome return to his specialty, comic horror; after 1993's Army of Darkness, he made a Western and a series of dramas before spending the better part of the last decade directing the Spiderman trilogy. Here, here's clearly having a great time making a loose, funky B-movie; you can almost hear him cackling off-screen. After making three ridiculously popular blockbusters, Raimi brings total assurance to his work--he can play an audience like a piano with this kind of material.
After a vintage, 80s-style Universal logo (seriously, there's no easier way to suck a movie geek like me in than with a vintage logo--see Zodiac, Mystic River, etc.) and an insane pre-title sequence, Raimi plunges us into his primary story: Christine Brown (Alison Lohman, so good in Matchstick Men) is a loan officer at a bank, angling for a promotion to assistant manager; her boss, Mr. Jacks (good ol' David Paymer) assures her that, to pull the gig, she has to be able to make "tough decisions." The opportunity to make one presents itself when ancient gypsy Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) appears at her desk, asking for an extension on her home loan. When Brown tells her that there's simply nothing they can do, Mrs. Ganush gets on her knees and begs, but Christine doesn't budge. Mrs. Ganush growls "You shame me!" at her, and things go downhill for poor Christine from there; the repulsive woman puts a curse on her, wherein she is haunted by dark spirits for three days, and after that time, well, they'll take the titular action.
The curse comes at the conclusion of an encounter in the bank's parking garage, which is one of the film's highlights--it's a scrappy, funny, terrific sequence, and the rowdy audience I saw the film with ate it up like candy. The picture is full of fabulous little set pieces like that one, in which inventively constructed scenes are given further life by Raimi's dutch angles and trick zooms and shock edits; in those bits, Drag Me To Hell aspires to, and reaches, a kind of full-blooded Pop Guignol.
Much of the success of the picture rides on Miss Lohman, who is really getting away with something here; she manages to be both utterly sincere and in on the joke, without tipping her hand either way. It's a tart, kicky performance, the kind of work that Nancy Allen used to do so well in those old Brian DePalma movies. Justin Long's boyfriend is something of a vanilla dullard, but that's exactly how he should be; part of the fun in a female-ccentric horror movie is the ineffectual boyfriend, which Raimi and Long both seem to understand. Raver, as the crazy old lady, is both terrifying and disgusting; Raimi gets some cheap but nevertheless solid laughs out of her false teeth, creepy glass eye, and sickly fluids.
In many ways, the film comes to a head with the deliriously overblown sťance sequence that closes the second act; you'll probably find yourself thinking, "Jesus, there's no way he can keep sustaining this," and unfortunately, you're right. The last thirty minutes is much weaker than the hour or so that precedes it, primarily because it pivots on the big reveal of a plot fake-out that most moviegoers will see coming a mile away (everyone around me certainly seemed to see through it, and said so, loudly). I kept hoping that Raimi (and his brother Ivan, with whom he co-wrote the script) were actually way ahead of us, that it was going to be some kind of a knowing double-cross, but apparently not. This is not to say that there isn't good stuff in the third act (there certainly is: the muddy graveyard scene, for instance, and the ending's admirable sustaining of the film's cold-blooded streak), but it's colored by elephant in the room (or in the envelope, in this case).
There are other, little infractions here and there as well; the industrial espionage subplot is half-baked, and Raimi tips the tone too far to the goofy side in a couple of shorter sequences (like the handkerchief attack and the assault in Christine's shed, which is also marred by surprisingly shoddy effects work). And there's a little story thread that will be tough for my fellow cat lovers to take.
But these are minor complaints; Drag Me To Hell is giddy, trashy fun. Some won't get it; I heard a couple of guys on their way out saying it was "stupid," and I just shook my head. They don't understand: It takes a smart, smart man to make a film this stupid. Raimi is intoxicated by movies, and no doubt the moments that struck those guys as "stupid" were the ones I liked the best, when Raimi was indulging the conventions, kidding them, occasionally turning them on their head. That moment aside, I encourage you to see it as I did--with a packed, raucous opening weekend audience. This reviewer usually prefers to see newly releases at sparsely-populated weekday matinees because, let's be honest, people just don't know how to act at movies anymore. But at a jumpy horror movie with a sense of humor, all rules are off--we're all there to have fun, to scream and yell and jump and talk to the screen, and Drag Me To Hell has no trouble providing that particular brand of a good time.