Hell Raiser

After years of big-budget superhero films, Sam Raimi has trimmed everything to the bare essentials: fear and fun

Recipe: Add one tablespoon of spittle from an old hag, three blond hairs from one young woman (preferable beautiful), and one fly with wings still beating to a stew of blood and maggots. Simmer for 90 minutes. Drain through a cursed handkerchief and allow to sit on counter until rotten. What you’ll wind up with is one hell of a good horror flick.

This is the recipe that Spider-Man director Sam Raimi cooks up for Drag Me to Hell and let me warn you, it’s going to give you heartburn. And it burns so good.

Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) has big ambitions, but is trapped in her own personal hell. Her boss keeps dangling a promotion in front of her and takes glee watching her jump for it. The rich, snotty parents of her boyfriend (Justin Long) don’t think she’s good enough, maybe because she can’t kick that pesky farm-girl accent that marks her like a blue ribbon on a prized hog. When she tries to assert herself at work by denying old one-eyed Sylvia Ganush (Lorna Raver) a mortgage extension (an unfortunately timely reference that sticks out like an infected toe), her day goes from bad to cursed.

Hell mouth: Raver
Hell mouth: Raver

Haunted by visions of Sylvia and used as a punching bag by a shadow creature with horns and cloven hooves, Christine resorts to all the usual ”I think I’m possessed” tricks. She enlists the help of a psychic (Dileep Rao), she swats at the flies that are always around her head, she makes some sacrifices and tries to atone, and when all else fails she eats ice cream even though she’s lactose intolerant. That’s the fun, spunky kind of heroine she is: “So my life is cursed and I’m going to spend eternity in hell, might as well crack open the Breyers!”

And this is why the movie, which uses so many horror-film standards, ends up tasting heavenly when so many others use the same recipe and end up sour. Sam Raimi and his co-writing brother Ivan understand that scary and gory are different and that they can use both effectively. And they know that humor can offset tension beautifully.

Back to the gore element for a minute: exploding heads, projectile eyeballs — hell, stapled eyeballs — and an unfortunate embalming fluid kiss barely scratch the gruesome surface. Raimi by no means relies solely on the visuals, so masterfully done by his special-effects team. Instead, he slowly turns up the heat by announcing imminent doom with the squealing of a fence gate, with the slow reveal of the shadowy figure in broad daylight, and by upping the stakes with every minute that passes.

Keeping pace with the suspense is the humor. Sometimes it’s a sight gag, like poor Christine bashing her forehead into the window trying to see if the old woman is underneath her car, and sometimes it’s classic Horror Scene 101 that’s funny because it’s a cliché but it’s working because we’re all laughing. And when the laughter stops, the flies are still gross, the handkerchief is still menacing, and your hands are still gripping the armrests.

Lohman is waifish as Christine, painfully earnest and surprisingly volatile. Delivering her lines with utter conviction at times and like a 2-year-old at others, she ensures that Christine is lovable and innocent even when welding a shovel over a grave. As her nemesis, Raver gets great mileage out of a glass eye and appearing where she shouldn’t be. Her visage alone is enough to make you jump. Long is perfectly fine as Christine’s doting boyfriend, but he and Lohman lack a chemistry onscreen and never really sell the couple.

DRAG ME TO HELL
starstarstarstar
Starring Alison Lohman, Justin Long
PG-13
99 Minutes
Opens May 29
Area Theaters

The Raimi brothers have written a straightforward plot with a few great one-liners, some terrifying scenes, and a twist that happens prematurely. The catch that inevitably lengthens any horror film past the first resolution is a card played too early in Drag Me to Hell. Even creepy Sylvia with her good eye closed could have seen this one coming. What’s supposed to be Christine’s big scene is completely overshadowed by the sleight of hand that isn’t so slight. It’s a small error in an otherwise terrific film, but it’s nearly deadly.

After years of big-budget superhero films, and Spider-Man 4 on the way, Raimi has trimmed everything back to the bare essentials: fear and fun. Drag Me to Hell is a devilishly good time. Even if it’s a one-way ticket, there’s good company awaiting you there. So if you know someone who’s going to Hell, ask him to save you a seat.

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