HERE'S a very important question: When was the last time a horror film that manage to scare the hell out of you but at the same time also draw some worthy dosage of cheeky laughter as well?
Not since the EVIL DEAD trilogy jump started the horror-comedy genre that still remained crucial staples to these days, it's good to see DRAG ME TO HELL hits the near-perfect score we have come to miss for so long. Not only that, this horror film also marked director Sam Raimi's favorable return to the very genre that first made him a household name after flirting with big-budget Hollywood blockbusters beginning with 2002's SPIDER-MAN, 2004's SPIDER-MAN 2 and 2007's SPIDER-MAN 3.
The film opens with a bang as a nervous-looking, farm-working parents (Alexis Cruz, Ruth Livier) brought their terribly-ill son (Shiloh Selassie) to see a young gypsy, Shaun Sen Dena (Flor de Maria Chahua) to break a deadly curse. Unfortunately the curse that plagued inside the innocent boy is too powerful for Shaun to vanquish it whatsoever, only end up witnessing the inevitable damnation of the boy literally being dragged into the bowel of hell below. Years later, this deadly curse awaits the next victim, and the unfortunate person is Christine (Alison Lohman). But at the beginning, she doesn't look like kind of person who deserved such fate since she's a sweet-natured young woman who work very hard as a loan officer at California's Wilshire Pacific Bank in hope to fill in the seat of a vacant assistant manager's post. However, she is not without her competition, another fellow loan officer named Stu Rubin (Reggie Lee) who also wants the position so badly as well, and their boss, Mr. Jacks (David Paymer) are having tough time trying to decide who is among the best candidate to fill in the seat. Outside her profession, Christine has a wonderful and caring boyfriend named Clay (Justin Long) who is recently landed a professor's position. So far, their life goes so smoothly until one day, an old hag Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), who is happened to be a gypsy, appears at her desk to beg for an extension on her home loan. At first, Christine really wants to help her but not until she starts to realize that being too kind isn't going to land her a better spot for the assistant manager's position. Believing she is making the right choice, she ends up politely rejected Mrs. Ganush's request. "I beg and you shame me?" Mrs. Ganush replied with such an upset and threatening voice that security guard have to drag her out of the bank. Later that night, while getting into her car, Christine is violently ambushed by a vengeful Mrs. Ganush. A series of struggle ensues until Mrs. Ganush manages to rip a button off from Christine's coat, and starts to place the curse of the Lamia against her. And so this is where all hell breaks loose for poor Christine, who is about to lose her sanity suffering from all torments of the damned. Together with her boyfriend, she seeks the help of a spiritual advisor named Rham Jas (Dileep Rao). She is later learned the curse of the Lamia she had upon her is also known as the "Black Goat", a dreaded demon that likes to play around with their victim for three days before erupting from the earth's crust and literally dragging its victim to hell.
Written way back after Sam Raimi and his brother Ivan Raimi completed the EVIL DEAD trilogy with ARMY OF DARKNESS (1992), this excellent horror film is certainly a rollercoaster, cinematic experience equivalent to those big-budget action extravanganza staged for summer movie season.
Opened with the old Universal logo, the one used in the 1980s when Sam Raimi got his career start with the first two EVIL DEAD films, DRAG ME TO HELL is a highly entertaining homage to B-movie, particularly those classic curse genre. All the production values are purposely made in a pure old-school form: homey art direction and production design, as well as mixing on-location juxtaposing with shots of attractive and frequently atmospheric backlots. Peter Deming's cinematography is equally top-notch as he and Raimi brilliantly incorporates various cinematic tricks using tilted angles, close-ups and well-staged setups so effectively it's much better than those today's horror film enhanced their fright via extensive special-effects wonder. Then there's Christopher Young's intensely nailbiting, string-laden music score that perfectly echoes the great work of the late Bernard Herrmann.
Completing the horror perfection is the brilliantly multilayered sound effects design -- creaking gates, tapping fingernails, a buzzing fly -- are so intimately depicted to give the film a terrific sense of sinister aura it's especially best seen in big-screen theaters for ultimate cinematic experience.
But best of all is of course, Sam Raimi himself. No doubt a true master of the genre, he knows well about timing is everything to make a great horror film. All the horror scene are genuinely frightening that some of them almost made me squirm and jump out of my seat (e.g. the highly suspensful scene set in an underground parking garage and the violent attack inside Christine's house where she is mercilessly pushed to limits by unseen force of evil). Not to forget also is Raimi's hilarious trademark of morbid humor that is so tongue-in-cheek, and at the same time delivers with such level of lunacy camp it's fun to watch. Such scenes are a gross-out scene set in Christine's tool shed equivalent those in Looney Tunes cartoon, particularly the one inspired from Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner-like lunacy together with the appearance of an anvil into the action, and the possessed handkerchief scene -- all a must-see to be believed.
Amazingly, for all the frightening set pieces and those the one with onslaughts of various bodily fluids including phlegm, projectile nosebleed and such, depicted throughout the film, it manage to retain a PG-13 rating. In recent years, horror fans as well as critics has blasted today's mainstream genre films are plagued with family-friendly PG-13 rating that usually end up with disappointments. But Raimi has clearly proved even a PG-13 rated horror film has its own potential to fright the audience that put most R-rated horror genre to shame, as long as they done right.
Although it's sad to see cult favorite Bruce Campbell failed to make the cut due to his busy commitment with his TV show, Burn Notice, Raimi still able to craft some of the most energetic performances ever seen in years: Alison Lohman (a role originated for Ellen Page, but surprisingly dropped out prior to filming) is pitch-perfect. Both pretty and fragile, Lohman plays her character with sheer enthusiasm that we really root for her sweet-natured likeness, right down to her playful energy she has clearly shown as she forced to deal with the curse. Equally credible is Justin Long, who could have been written as a thankless role but he manages to turn his stock part into someone worthwhile. He and Lohman are particularly convincing as loving couples truly in love for each other, and no doubt their chemistry are someone we can really root for. Lorna Raver, on the other hand, is unforgettably frightening as Mrs. Ganush who is simply terrific as the vengeful gypsy that I'm sure she is qualified enough to place her as among the most memorable horror villains ever graced on the big screen.
While the last scene is somewhat losing steam, together with all-too-grim finale that might a turn-off for some, DRAG ME TO HELL is a genuine rarity -- a mainstream horror picture that simply earned a distinctive place as among the finest genre ever seen in a very long time.
Welcome back, Sam Raimi!