Sam Raimi's horror sensibilities have been sorely missed while he was distracted by the Spider-Man trilogy. Movies as scarily funny as his Evil Dead trilogy have been replaced by increasingly gruesome gore fests, or cliched terror whittled to blandness for more lucrative PG-13 ratings.
Drag Me to Hell — even the title is fun — is Raimi's retaliation to all that. This is a movie that doesn't strive to be more than audiences can stand, unless you get exhausted from laughing. Raimi's brand of Looney Tunes terror, embracing the genre and its ability to thrill while gently spoofing it, should be required viewing for anyone believing Saw IV is an awesome flick.
The plot is simple and perversely topical: A well-mannered loan officer named Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) wants a promotion, but her boss (David Paymer) thinks she can't make tough decisions. Coincidentally, a chance pops up: a gypsy crone (Lorna Raver) behind in her payments. Christine turns down her request for an extension, an insult the woman answers with a supernatural curse.
At a time when record foreclosures are in the news, watching anyone on the banking side squirm is entertaining. It isn't an accident that as soon as Christine's heartlessness makes her the frontrunner for promotion she literally begins to go to hell.
Raimi barrels through this material like a runaway funhouse car, without as many of his signature zooms as usual, and leaning a bit too heavily on sonic stings to elicit screams. But it is endlessly amusing to see how much a pro like Raimi squeezes from such hoary horror devices as a deserted parking garage and menacing shadows. What we don't see in Drag Me to Hell is often more frightening than what we do.
Performances don't mean much under these circumstances, although Raver makes a remarkable wretch and Justin Long nicely underplays the supportive boyfriend part. Lohman (a late replacement for Juno's Ellen Page) is an easy victim to cheer. Sometimes the best contributions come from nonhuman actors; a housefly's detour through someone's nose, and a cat paying for all those kitties jumping out of closets for cheap jolts in other movies.
Drag Me to Hell is a lark fitting snugly between the Saw flicks and silliness like Shaun of the Dead, making the gasps and laughter feel like something earned through ingenuity. Welcome back, Mr. Raimi. We've been lurking for you.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.