If a one-eyed gypsy with very bad teeth asks you for anything, and really, I cannot emphasize this enough, say yes. Don’t waver, don’t bargain; anything short of yes could put you on a fast track to damnation as surely as a broken mirror will bring you seven years of bad luck.
Look at what happens to Christine, a very good egg boiled to perfection by circumstance and a lot of good work by Alison Lohman. One bad decision and suddenly director Sam Raimi throws her under the bus of his terrific new horror film, “Drag Me to Hell.”
If you’ve been worried that Raimi’s decade spent spinning the “Spider-Man” web might have caused him to go soft, well stop. The director who gave us the “Evil Dead” trilogy is back with a vengeance that rivals the one-eyed gypsy I warned you about.
With that fire in his belly, Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell” does everything we want a horror film to do: It is fearsomely scary, wickedly funny and diabolically gross, three stomach-churning states that argue for taking a pass on the $10 box of popcorn. Which also makes the movie an excellent economic investment in these tough times.
I mention the economy because Raimi has made it an issue at the heart of “Drag Me to Hell,” in the spirit of campy cultural commentary that good horror can do so well. The director and his brother Ivan began the script 10 years ago before Peter Parker’s many tribulations in Spidey tights sidelined it. If the Raimis really are as prescient as “Drag Me” would suggest, I’d like to put in a good word for them to be added to the Obama economic recovery team.
You see, Christine is a lending agent at a bank and ambition has made her desperate for a promotion. The gypsy is old Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), who just wants a little of the candy on Christine’s desk and another extension on her home loan. Sounds reasonable to me. And it did to Christine too until her boss (David Paymer) hints that if she is serious about that promotion . . .
So good, decent Christine goes against her better judgment and denies Mrs. Ganush’s request. Bad choice, Christine. Before she can begin what will be a long string of “I’m sorrys,” that become “How dare yous,” there’s a curse on her head and the nightmare begins. Not too many scenes later you may find yourself wondering if the title was meant to refer to Christine or the rest of us.
Against all the craziness that any decent ghost story conjures up, there has to be the rational voice. In “Drag Me,” it comes from the Mac guy, Justin Long, who I’m sure will one day have a role that will turn his Apple ad stint into nothing more than a footnote, but this won’t be it.
As the very proper professor Clay Dalton, Long is torn between what he knows is reality and his increasingly delusional girlfriend’s belief that she’s got just a few days to fend off the devil who’s nipping at her heels. Clay doesn’t have what it takes to fight off demons anyway, assuming he even believed in them, but he’s a good boyfriend, willing to humor Christine even when he thinks she’s completely lost her mind.
In Mrs. Ganush, Raimi and Raver have created a horrific otherworldly fiend that can hold her own against the best of the Freddy Kruegers of the world. This is one woman who can roar (still, I do worry that given the slimy dentures, projectile vomiting and that really bad temper, Raver won’t be doing lunch in town any time soon). Other evil forces are churned up by that angry curse and rise too; the particularly deadly dark spirit called Lamia is the one to worry about.
Though the film has echoes of Raimi’s earlier and much loved “Evil Dead” series -- especially what he does with mischief-making, chill-inducing wind -- “Drag Me to Hell” should not be dismissed as yet another horror flick just for teens. The filmmakers have given us a 10-story winding staircase of psychological tension that is making very small circles near the end. Though Christine is technically the one doing the climbing, it’s nearly impossible not to feel like she’s dragging us right along with her, which is after all the point.
There are all manner of grisly things that Christine must deal with before it is finished, but it’s really grisly-lite, nothing like the torture-porn of the “Hostel” series or the bodies-on-meat-hooks style of sadomasochism you find in “Hellraiser.”
When Raimi says Lohman is in virtually every scene except the opening historical note, he’s not exaggerating. In broad strokes, because you should experience the fear and loathing of the specifics for yourself, she must decide exactly how far she is willing to go to stay alive. There is one point that risks having sympathy turn to antipathy, and I’m betting that a contingent of the audience won’t be able to get past it, but Lohman, with her strange blend of apple pie sweetness and business school pragmatism, is the right one for the job, making sure most of us stay on Christine’s side.
From the stuff that is driven into and through bodies to the stuff that comes out of them and all the other strange things that go bump in the night, the look of the film is a studied balance between over-the-top camp and believable enough moments that, taken together, might give you a few sleepless nights. A certain grave-site scene demonstrates both nicely, so a special shout-out to the vast teams that handled the stunts, the effects, the makeup and the rest of it.
Horror might not be your thing, but if you can push through the fear, stomach the gross and just let yourself go with it, the payoff is experiencing a filmmaker totally in his element. Raimi is having the time of his life -- he knows exactly what he’s doing with every scene and every scream. He’s confident, he’s smiling. If he has us squirming in our seats, then so much the better.
‘Drag Me to Hell’
MPAA rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of horror violence, terror, disturbing images and language
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Playing: In general release