Leave it to Sam Raimi to breathe some new life into the genre most closely associated with lame sequels and lifeless remakes. But while Drag Me to Hell certainly exists within the well-defined confines of the horror genre, the truth is that it feels more like a shock-a-minute roller-coaster ride than your typical fright flick. Raimi refers to his much-touted return to horror as a "spook-a-blast," which is certainly more appropriate than the traditional classification. Back in the day, Raimi's Evil Dead was touted as "The Ultimate Experience in Grueling Terror." Perhaps it's more accurate to label Drag Me to Hell a "terror" film rather than a "horror" film given its crowd-pleasing energy and relentless onslaught of expertly timed shocks. Raimi's unique knack for toying with an audience is stronger than ever now that he's sharpened his filmmaking skills in Hollywood, and after proving that he can play with the big boys he's finally returned to the genre that launched his career.
Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is an ambitious L.A. loan officer looking to land an assistant manager position by outperforming her ass-kissing colleague (Reggie Lee) and impressing her boss (David Paymer). Her boyfriend, Clay (Justin Long), has just landed a professor's position and everything is looking good for Christine until bedraggled gypsy Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) appears at her desk to beg for an extension on her home loan. Realizing that it will improve her chances of landing the position if she can save the bank some money, Christine politely yet firmly turns Mrs. Ganush away. Later that night, while getting into her car, Christine is violently attacked by a vengeful Mrs. Ganush and manages to momentarily gain the upper hand before the feisty gypsy strikes back with supernatural vengeance. Stealing a button from Christine's coat, Mrs. Ganush places the curse of the Lamia upon the frightened girl. Also known as the "Black Goat," the Lamia is a dreaded demon that takes delight in tormenting its victims for three days before erupting from the earth's crust and literally dragging its victims to hell. Now, it's Christine's turn to suffer the torments of the damned before being cast into the lake of fire for all eternity.
As with many of the most effective genre films, Drag Me to Hell is devilishly simple, giving Raimi plenty of room to have some fun behind the camera as the dreaded Lamia torments our hapless heroine at some of the most inopportune times. This is Raimi cutting loose after spending the better part of a decade crafting the Spider-Man juggernaut, and his energy and enthusiasm are evident in every aspect of this film, from screenplay to final cut.
Few of Raimi's collaborators are quite as attuned to the director's razor-sharp sensibilities than editor Bob Murawski. As he did in both Army of Darkness and the Spider-Man films, Murawski makes the absolute most out of every shock in Drag Me to Hell. Like Raimi, Murawski knows how to pace a scene for maximum impact, and when these two team up, the fireworks really fly. The Lamia attacks are wondrous feats of shadow, suggestion, and pacing; Mrs. Ganush's attack on Christine in an underground parking structure matches anything in the Evil Dead canon for sheer manic energy; and the climatic séance blends horror and humor so well that audiences won't know whether to laugh or scream.
Achieving this unique balance is a rare feat in film, and would be virtually impossible without an assured cast that knows how to play each scene precisely right. In Loman, Raimi has found his perfect female foil -- pretty and fragile, yet able to take a beating and never give up (much like the Deadites in Raimi's Evil Dead films, the Lamia has a knack for pummeling its victims mercilessly before ultimately pulling them down to perdition). As the haggard Mrs. Ganush, Raver delivers a performance that recalls the cackling witch from Army of Darkness, and even supporting player Lee gets some solid laughs as the conniving contender for the assistant manager position, who isn't nearly as confident as outward appearances would suggest. And while Long doesn't have much to do as the boyfriend except appear skeptical, it's a testament to Sam and Ivan Raimi's screenwriting that the character never comes off as smarmy or condescending.
Drag Me to Hell is a popcorn film that aims to entertain -- nothing more, nothing less -- and it achieves that goal admirably. Few films, horror or otherwise, can boast such a claim, making Raimi's self-described spook-a-blast an excellent example of a film where ambition and execution come together in perfect harmony. And to anyone who doubts that a PG-13 horror film can still retain the power to shock, just know that a mouthful of yellow mucus can make an audience cringe even better than a bucket of blood, and it won't even get you slapped with an R rating by the MPAA.