Thursday, 4 June 2009

Drag Me To Hell

As if the retro Universal logo and portentous opening bars of Christopher Young’s marvellous score didn’t make it obvious enough, Drag Me To Hell is a delightful return to schlocky, icky, goopy horror for Sam Raimi. Bouncing back from the misfiring Spiderman 3, Raimi’s first proper exploitation outing since his classic Evil Dead trilogy came to a close marks his most confident helming in years – unlike Spidey’s frequent feel of moviemaking by committee.

The director is back on more personal and fertile ground here, playing the audience like an expert violinist with a classic campfire/morality tale of a sweet natured loan officer, Christine (Alison Lohman) in competition with a brown nosing colleague for an assistant manager’s post at her bank. Keen to make headway with her boss, Christine chooses to foreclose on the house of Mrs Ganush (Lorna Raver, superbly revolting), an elderly gypsy woman.

A gypsy, it transpires, also with a line in supernatural curses. The unfortunate Christine finds herself the recipient of a diabolical hex after a car park scrap both hilarious and horrifying with the sinister Ganush. Raimi’s bold Looney Tunes aesthetic and kinetic camerawork make a thrilling return in this pivotal scene where a stapler and some misplaced dentures will have audiences both gasping and grinning (the emphasis on fluids and the mouth also results in several other memorably horrible moments).

Tormented by the Lamia goat demon who will after three days drag her soul into the fiery abyss, Christine’s only hopes are her sceptical boyfriend (Justin Long) and a medium (Dileep Rao), the only one who understands what is haunting her. A pleasingly sick strand of humour finds the beleagured heroine returning to her old comfort food of ice cream that marked her younger, plumper years when she was a simple farm girl (how satisfying it is to have a halfway believable character reaction to an outrageous scenario).

Raimi, working from a script he co-authored with his brother Ivan, continues to mine a potent mix of belly laughs and boo gotcha shocks out of this deceptively simple premise. While clearly functioning with a lower budget than he has become accustomed to of late, ironically the director’s imagination is the most unfettered it has been in ages, putting the gorgeous Lohman through the wringer by flinging her into walls, almost drowning her in muddy graves and forcing her to make some unsavoury sacrifices of her own. One priceless moment involving flying eyeballs will invite welcome memories of The Evil Dead (as will a séance conducted with a pulse pounding dash of Grand Guignol).

Although never in a mean spirited or sadistic vein, Raimi proves that his skill at audience manipulation hasn’t slackened with brief lulls shattered by another moment of expertly timed fright (the film is a self-described 'spookablast', akin to a classic fairground ride). Lohman and Raver do brilliantly with physically demanding roles, veering just the right side of parody in both cases (although both Long and Rao come across as bland fodder). Forgoing gore (mostly) in favour of the hokey B movies of old – a storm-lit reveal of a graveyard couldn’t signal Raimi’s intentions more clearly – Drag Me To Hell proves there’s no director more adept at finding the funny side in macabre horror. And you won’t look at hankies in the same way again…

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