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I walked into Drag Me to Hell as a complete horror hater. No, more like a horror weenie-- I'd never sat through a horror movie without my hands over my eyes most of the time, counting the minutes until it could just be over and I could stop dreading what's going to jump out at me from behind the corner. And I'll admit, there were parts of Drag Me to Hell where I was intently focused on my notebook, terrified to figure out what was making that awful creaking noise. But good Lord, I'm not sure I've ever had more fun in a movie theater.
Behind the camera and in complete control, Sam Raimi comes to Drag Me to Hell with eyes ablaze, taking his genuine love for horror and bestowing it upon the audience like a gift. The story is basic, the gimmicks familiar, the mythology laughable, but Raimi is so confident with what he's presenting, an alchemist mixing comedy and gross-out horror and genuine, expert tension. It's a movie that demands to be seen with a huge audience, milking every gasp and relieved laugh and even inviting shouting at the screen.
In defense of the story written by Raimi and his brother Ivan, the script is more than just a vehicle for seeing a pretty girl get covered in mud, blood, mucus and all kinds of awful stuff that I'll let you discover for yourselves. In essence Drag Me is a morality tale, about a bank loan officer named Christine (Alison Lohman) who is faced with a choice: extend the home loan for an elderly gypsy woman (Lorna Raver), or impress her boss with her ability to be tough. Christine chooses her career, and oh boy does she choose wrong. The woman, Mrs. Ganush, corners her in the parking garage after hours, and after a brief (and jaw-dropping) struggle, breathes upon Christine a curse that means she has three days before the movie's title comes true for her.
Christine enlists the help of a psychic (Dileep Rao), a spiritual medium (Adriana Barraza), and her ever-loving boyfriend Clay (Justin Long), but nothing can keep away the spooky goat-shaped shadow, the occasionally spectral reappearance of Mrs. Ganush, and other pretty awful stuff. Though creepy stuff pops up out of nowhere more than once, none of the scares here are cheap; the excellent sound design serves to enhance scares rather than trick the audience, and even when Christine is convinced of a threat that isn't actually there, you can be sure something real will pop up soon. Plenty of well-used CGI works its way into later scenes, but there's a lot of creepy fun with practicals, from a piece of cake that starts wriggling to a corpse that just won't stay in one place.
Drag Me to Hell's biggest blessing is its humor, which ranges from random one-liners from background characters to an entire, hilariously awkward dinner scene where Christine meets Clay's parents. The best is when the horror elements combine, and you find yourself laughing in a combination of terror and delight. He's got an uncanny knowledge of what the audience feels and wants, ratcheting up the tension at a perfect pace, throwing in an extra scare when the pace slows down, bringing back side characters exactly when you start missing them. In the movie's tight 99-minute running time, not a moment feels wasted.
Lohman, with her willowy frame and wide brown eyes, is the perfect heroine, a waif barely able to fight back at first but eventually summoning reserves of strength and even sadism as her fight gets more desperate-- and, to some degree, cruel. Christine's character development is crucial for keeping Drag Me away from sadism, letting us know that even though she might not have deserved this curse, she's not the worst candidate for all this torment. Long, though a bit of an empty shirt as the reliable boyfriend, is likable too, a nice audience surrogate who can't believe all this crazy shit is happening either. But it's Raver, done up with wrinkles and crazy dentures, who keeps the whole thing flying, and whom Raimi clearly loves most. Mrs. Ganush dies halfway through the film but keeps popping back up anyway, because everyone knows her greenish talons are scarier than anything else in the movie.
For me, a person who has never been brave enough to give horror a fair shake, Drag Me to Hell was a revelation, an introduction to horror as something fun, to horror filmmaking as something as skillful and audience-friendly. For everyone else who has suffered through the 10 terrible horror movies for every good one, Drag Me to Hell is a reward. And for Sam Raimi, who seemed to have lost his way in Spider-Man 3 it's proof of his supreme command of movie language, a movie geek as eager as his audience to get to what happens next. Regardless of your feelings on horror, Drag Me to Hell is pretty much a perfect movie. Consider my eyes opened.