Going in to the great movie showdown that this weekend promised, I had two questions: Which movie would I prefer, Pixar's "Up" or Sam Raimi's "Drag Me to Hell," and how in the world did Raimi's movie end up with less than a R rating?
Well, after having seen them both, I can definitively answer the first query: While I liked and more so admired "Up," Raimi's return to horror is the most fun I've had at the movies this year (edging out by a nose "Star Trek.")
As to the second, however, I still have no idea, because as any fans of "Evil Dead" would have been hoping, this flick is as juvenilely, eerily and blissfully disgusting as you could possibly expect. And give Raimi credit: With the most dead-on descriptive movie title since "Snakes on a Plane," there really shouldn't be anyone who goes into this one expecting anything less.
I'm not sure why, since they are such a natural combo, but humor and horror have been a very difficult concoction to blend in satisfying form in recent years. James Gunn did a fine job with "Slither" (did anyone else see that?) and Edgar Wright and co. do even better, but with both of these the laughs come first, whereas Raimi at his best, which he very nearly is here, delivers classic horror and finds the dark laughs within it. A litmus test: If seeing Alison Lohman stalk her pet with a kitchen knife as she coos "here kitty kitty" doesn't make you laugh, this movie isn't for you.
The movie opens with a great set piece that establishes immediately (in case the title left you with any doubt) what you're in store for. Two Hispanic parents take their cursed child to a healer of sorts. It seems the youngun has stolen a gypsy's necklace, never something I'd recommend, and, well, as you can probably imagine he doesn't fare too well from there.
It seems that the gypsies aren't a group of people you want to cross, and I have to confess that on a B-movie horror level, that just works for me. I think of myself as a solidly nonracist person, but if there's a chink in that armor, gypsies are it, because I once tried to sleep on a Eurorail train and had no less than four gypsy urchins come into my car and try to steal all of my belongings. Does that mean all gypsies are evil? Of course not. But it does, if suspending my nagging sensibilities, make me very susceptible to believing for about 90 minutes or so that they would be capable of unleashing something as nasty as the Lamia curse which, believe me, you don't want to get.
In Raimi's world, the star is Christine Brown, a very game Alison Lohman. Young Ellen Page was originally set to submit herself to this hell, but either chickened out (which I'd perfectly understand) or simply passed. What Lohman, who I had never seen in a movie before (but heard in "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind") brings to this schlockfest, along with a willingness to go through all kind of nastiness, is a nagging optimism that although you suspect is woefully misplaced, is enough to keep you playing Raimi's game until the end.
Her big mistake? Lohman's Christine, an ambitious bank loan officer (is there a more evil sort in the real world?), turns down an old lady for a third extension on her mortgage. And as anyone who knows even a bit about this flick knows, this was the wrong woman to piss off (and Lorna Raver, complete with an evil eye and secreting all kinds of squirm-inducing fluids even while she's still alive, is just the perfect choice.) From there, well, even if you think you know what's gonna happen, it's still a hell of a lot of fun going along for the ride.
And going in, I was fairly certain that funny guy and Mac pimper Justin Long was going to annoy me, but luckily he really doesn't have much to do here as Christine's supporting boyfriend (but his character's parents, played by Chelcie Ross and Molly Cheek, get the funniest scene of all, no small feat here.) What you need if you're gonna dine on this cheese buffet is someone who can lead you and Christine along, and Dileep Rao as psychic and all-around dark arts sensei Rham Jas certainly gets the job done. I don't want to give much else away, but Adriana Barraza is easily one of my favorite actresses (I even liked her quite a bit in the Jesus-wall-stain oddity "Henry Poole Is Here"), and when she turns up near the end of this flick (if you haven't walked out in disgust already) I guarantee you'll smile.
Raimi wraps it all up with an ending that's among his best, but what really makes this whole exercise so much fun is that, as with Raimi's "A Simple Plan," Christine, even as she makes mistake after mistake and suffers the requisite plagues for her misdeeds, is someone who - although more than a little greedy - we can easily all identify with.
In short, I loved just about every minute of Sam Raimi's "Drag Me to Hell," and though it's not enough to erase the nightmare that was "Spider-Man 3" from my memory (really, nothing would be, because it truly was just that bad), it certainly shows Raimi's still capable of having a blast of wicked fun, and raises hopes that Spidey's fourth installment won't just suck hard. Peace out.