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MOVIE REVIEW

Drag Me to Hell

Raimi's vision of 'Hell' is a real scream

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / May 29, 2009
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In 1981, Sam Raimi's "The Evil Dead" made a breakthrough for cheap-looking schlock. He found the comedy in dismemberment. The horror had a kind of slapstick kick, simultaneously funny and frightening.

Not only did the homemade quality lend the terrifying impression that, on your next trip to the woods, demons would descend, but the movie looked like you could have made it yourself. That's an illusion. A new generation of horror-comedy was born, but Raimi's inventive combination of precision and gnarly panic was hard to duplicate.

Raimi made two sequels (among other, straighter Hollywood movies) but would go on to become the more polished, better-funded director behind the Spider-Man franchise. He gave those movies an amiable pop-whiz that honored adolescence instead of pandering to it. But let's face it, the soaring professionalism of "Spider-Man 2" is a long way from the winking trash of "Evil Dead II."

His jubilant new movie, "Drag Me to Hell," splits the difference between blockbuster and schlock: a horror movie that eventually finds that contagious comic high of Raimi's no-budget youth, but with grown-up money now.

A young California bank loan officer named Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), eager for a promotion, refuses a little old lady's request for an extension on her mortgage payment. The old lady (Lorna Raver) is a nasty crone. Actually, she's something a little more problematic - a Slavic "gypsy" with a touch of evil. In any case, she removes her dentures, steals candy, hocks up some radioactive-looking mucus, begs on her knees for the extension, and, as she's being thrown out of the bank (yes, she's that foul) installs a hell-bound curse that Christine spends the movie scrambling to remove.

Christine leaves the bank, happy that she's impressed her nasally boss (David Paymer) and upstaged her chief rival for the job (Reggie Lee). But the old lady is waiting in the back of Christine's car to inflict more foulness. Their tussle is a nimble cartoon dance whose comedy is entirely physical and whose horror is entirely corporeal. The old lady's fanged dentures unwittingly fly out of her mouth, so when she goes in to bite Christine she winds up gumming the girl's chin.

That sequence is the tip of a gross iceberg. And as expertly orchestrated as it is, I wasn't convinced "Drag Me to Hell" was working by the time that parking lot fight ends. The principle problem is Lohman, a 30-year-old blonde who sounds like a drunk baby. In order for the supernatural effects to impress and for the plot to take off, Lohman is required to stand around and watch them happen to her. Raimi is a good filmmaker, but he can't keep you from asking the age-old horror-thriller question: Why don't these people ever run for their lives - or, at least, run faster?

But eventually the movie lets its star in on the joke, and Lohman's bright, gurgling manner becomes a sharp gameness that makes Christine's attempt to cleanse her soul a lot more fun. The turning point occurs with the words, "Here's kitty." You'll have to see for yourself why, but it brings down the house while dispelling any idea that the filmmakers aren't fully in control.

"Drag Me to Hell" is a loose showcase of everything Raimi couldn't have tried in a Spider-Man movie - scatological gags, talking goats, a debate over Freud and Jung. (Christine's unwaveringly supportive boyfriend, played by Justin Long, is a psychology professor.) There's even a séance that requires Adriana Barraza, the Oscar-nominated nanny from "Babel," to speak with the devil's tongue. (The sound, meanwhile, has been designed to hasten hearing loss. Surely in some town, using Digital Dolby Surround for the vomiting up of what can only be called maggot-fried rice is a crime.)

But working with his brother Ivan, Sam Raimi is laughing with us - and often louder than we are. (That glee is audible in the sound design, too.) Previously, the trouble with Raimi has sometimes been that you didn't trust him. Movies like "Darkman" and his Spaghetti-O western "The Quick and the Dead" were hard to take seriously. His laughter had turned into a smirk. "Spider-Man" restored a kind of joyful sincerity to his work. The latter stages of "Drag Me to Hell" demonstrate a particularly delightful commitment to the task at hand. Raimi succeeds at giving literal moviemaking a good name, while providing diabolic catharsis for many a disgruntled homeowner.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

DRAG ME TO HELL

Directed by: Sam Raimi

Written by: Sam and Ivan Raimi

Starring: Alison Lohman, Justin Long, and Adriana Barraza

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 96 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (violence, disturbing images, language)