After the 1993 release of “Army of Darkness,” fans of director Sam Raimi clamored for a fourth entry in his adored “Evil Dead” series of horror bonanzas. “Drag Me to Hell” is the filmmaker’s first meaty scare effort since he sauntered off to make the blockbuster “Spider-Man” trilogy, but it might as well be subtitled “The Evil Dead Film You’ve Been Waiting For.” A wicked, highly stylized fright flick, “Drag” brings out the good-humored Sam Raimi we all know and love, allowing him a devilish playground to reawaken his rascally spirit sufficiently mummified by the big-league, big-buck “Spider-Man” features. Raimi hasn’t lost his touch in the years since he last galloped into screwball scares, and “Drag” is an awesome reminder that when unchained, he can still deliver the finest, wettest, slyest entertainment around.
A loan officer at a Los Angeles bank, Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is eager to nab an open assistant manager position, competing against a brown-nosing rookie (Reggie Lee) for the honor. Christine faces a crucial professional test in Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), an unsightly Gypsy woman unable to pay her mortgage, literally begging Christine for a second chance. When refused, Ganush attacks and places a deadly curse on Christine that brings three days of shadowy torment from the Lamia, a horned creature who toys mercilessly with its victims. On a race to break the curse before it rips her apart, Christine turns to seer Rham Jas (Dileep Rao) for guidance and boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) for support as she desperately searches for a way to free herself from unspeakable doom.
“Drag Me to Hell” commences with the long forgotten 1980’s Universal Studios logo, setting a delicious retro mood for what’s about to unfold. It’s a reminder of a time before torture porn nonsense or endless mind-numbing DTV scare product clogged up vital artistic arteries. “Drag” floats audiences back to an era when horror was all about providing a good, clean carnival ride of fright. And who better to conduct this nuanced symphony of the macabre than one of the genre’s finest technicians.
Written by Raimi (with brother Ivan), “Drag Me to Hell” provides only a thin membrane of a plot, setting up Christine’s workplace ambition and demonic dilemma swiftly which leaves a wide open space for the director to dream up ways to torment our heroine. The narrative minimalism is quite deceiving, with the writing forgoing spurts of melodrama to amplify the conflict quickly, yet preserving a wonderfully effective character arc for Christine as she battles to outmaneuver tireless, devious satanic forces while maintaining her relationship with Clay and juggle humiliating office politics -- all of it outstandingly portrayed by Lohman, who nimbly succumbs to a classic Raimi horror beatdown while retaining much of her prized whispery charisma.
Once Christine’s inexorable curse is set in motion, “Drag” transforms into a swirling sensory explosion. Working with every studio accountant’s favorite rating, PG-13, “Drag” doesn’t appear too interested in lavish bloodshed. Instead the picture sweats to create a mood of unrelenting unease, frequently through raucous cues that tinker with the art of the sonic shock. Now, this isn’t some lazy director napping on the cheap scare button. This is Raimi, and he’s a maestro with this aesthetic, swelling “Drag” with a sophisticated cacophony of 360 degree demonic agony. It’s beautifully and exhaustively designed by the production.
As for the rest of the nightmare? No worries. Raimi is armed to the teeth with creepy crawly sequences aimed to freak out those who suffer easily from entomophobia. “Drag” also embarks on some rather fearless detours into animal sacrifice and gobs of goopy puke and spit humor, which adds a welcome element of laughs to this heightened phantasmagoria of misery. “Drag” slips into Looney Tunes mode every now and again (complete with anvil shenanigans), spotlighting Raimi’s “Evil Dead” roots, nicely shaped and reimagined by “Drag” to knock Christine around with gorgeous, meticulous shot compositions and sumptuous exploitation of bustling sound effects. Huffing the same fumes of violent absurdity, “Drag” is an ideal pacifier for those still itching for the return of Ash.
“Drag” is loud, boisterous entertainment, eager to please animated audience members just looking surf the gruesome particulars of the Lamia curse, while peppering in plenty of Raimi-isms for the hardcore fans. “Drag Me to Hell” is an efficient, exceptional shocker that serves up bucketfuls of jolts and icks with eye-bulging enthusiasm. It’s honestly the best horror film I’ve seen in ages, and it’s a thrill to watch Raimi furiously twirl the knobs on a genre he excels in.