Thursday, May. 14, 2009

Drag Me to Hell: Sam Raimi's Genre Curse

Updated on May 28, 2009

Our heroine is asleep at home. A fly buzzes near her, lands on her face, crawls into her right nostril. After a few beats, it emerges from her left nostril and, purposefully, presses itself into her closed mouth. It’ll stay inside for a while, but not forever.

Drag Me to Hell — a great genre title for an O.K. genre movie — is the latest from Sam Raimi, who made zillions with his Spider-Man movies but is revered by horrorphiliacs for another trilogy, his cheapo-creepo Evil Dead movies. Taking a break from A-movie budgets, subjects and actors, Raimi and his brother Ivan concocted a script about the effects of a gypsy curse on a basically nice person who does One Bad Thing. Inspired by the tone of B-movie scare epics of the '50s, they've made a slick, mostly predictable homage-pastiche that itself rates about a B-.

Christine (Matchstick Man's Alison Lohman) is a friendly, efficient, 20-something career gal with a caring, slightly pompous boyfriend (Justin Long, from the Apple commercials), who just got a job as a professor but whose real function in the film is to scoff at the existence of the satanic forces pestering Christine and to be absent or ignorant whenever bad stuff happens. As the loan officer at an L.A. bank, she has to consider a nutsy crone's request for an extension on a home loan. The old lady, a Mrs. Ganush (the aptly named Lorna Raver), doesn't have much collateral: a glass eye, false teeth that keep slipping out and enough phlegm to fill the Rose Bowl. Reluctantly, and to help her secure a promotion, Christine turns down the loan. Apparently, Christine doesn't realize she's in a horror film, where the first law is to avoid pissing off a crazy lady with a wandering eye.

That evening after work, in a parking garage that of course has not another soul passing through it for minutes on end, our heroine is attacked by the old lady. At the end of the kind of combat scene Mickey Rourke didn't have to endure in The Wrestler, Mrs. G. snatches a button off Christine's coat and hands it back, with the promise that she'll be hearing from the Lamia. A storefront psychic advisor (Dileep Rao) explains that the Lamia is a demon who toys sadistically with his victims for three days, then pretty much drags them down to Hell. Thus is the logic of horror movies.

It's a doctrine that Raimi devoutly observes, he being as old-fashioned a scare maker as the Lady Ganush is an intoner of maledictions. This is the sort of film where the wind portentously rustles leaves only Christine can see moving; where pots and pans rattle on their own; where every door creaks and violins go tremulous in a John Cagean symphony of noises; where nosebleeds reach Niagara volume; where the shadow of a horned, cloven-hoofed creature proceeds up the stairs toward the heroine's bedroom; and where, to get rid of a curse, you must dig up a grave and pin the button on a crazy person who's dead — but not that dead.

After a while, Raimi's attentiveness to genre formula becomes almost reassuring. You know This Awful Thing is next on the agenda. But speaking as a moviegoer and not as a critic, I'm obliged to confess that, when the first image of the demon flashed onscreen, I got a jolt to my nervous system that was more than a seismic shiver — it felt exactly like a deep electric shock. I could almost hear the Raimis murmur, "Another satisfied customer."

It's not even a spoiler alert to pass along this warning to those of you sitting in the theater at the very end: If you suddenly wonder, "Hey, nobody got dragged to hell in this movie," be assured that the Raimis deliver on their title. They guarantee that people will leave the theater knowing who the hero-victim will be in the all-but-inevitable Drag Me to Hell Again Next Summer.

And to all the bank officers with billions in stimulus handouts and the millions of begging customers: Never say no, especially to crazy old ladies. Don't you dare say no.

Watch TIME's video "Making Drag Me to Hell More Hellish."