Alison Lohman, in 'Drag Me to Hell'

Dir. Sam Raimi
(2009, PG-13, 99 min)
★ ★ ★

What I like about pulp genre specialists like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez is how true they are to their roots. When they make B-movies, they do it with A-grade skill, but instead of holding themselves above their references with detached superiority, they embrace them fully and give in to all the giddy, gaudy, ridiculous pleasures that, I imagine, made them fall in love with the movies in the first place. In films such as Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Rodriguez’s Sin City, and the Grindhouse double feature they released together, they evoke for my generation an era of drive-thru and midnight movies that no longer exists.

Sam Raimi, by reputation, can be added to the list, though I am sad to say I have not seen the Evil Dead films that won him such a rabid cult following. I think, however, that Drag Me to Hell gives me some idea. I don’t think it’s as good as Kill Bill, Sin City, or the Grindhouse films, but it’s certainly giddy, gaudy, and ridiculous … I kinda liked it.

It’s ostensibly a horror movie, but it plays like a comedy. Raimi takes gruesome imagery past the point of terror to a place of abject silliness, in the hopes of achieving a sublime absurdity, and a lot of it works. It stars Alison Lohman, the actress from White Oleander and Matchstick Men who deserves to be a bigger star than she is, as a bank loan officer named Christine Brown, who spends a lot of time being knocked around, crawling through mud, and periodically losing chunks of her hair to angry gypsy spirits. There’s a bit with an anvil too, but see it for yourself.

You see, Christine is up for a promotion at work and wants to prove herself by playing hardball with an old woman about to lose her home; the bank will make money if it seizes the house. But this is the wrong old woman to mess with. She’s a wheezing old gypsy with a one good eye and an apparent mucus problem. Humiliated, she puts a curse on Christine: for three days, she will be tormented by a demonic creature called Lamia, and then she will be, as per the title, dragged to hell.

She has a loving but incredulous boyfriend, psychologist Clay Dalton (Justin Long), who pooh-poohs all the spiritual mumbo-jumbo but is less condescending than most such characters in the movies. There’s a wide-eyed psychic, Rham Jas (Dileep Rao), an exposition repository who makes dire proclamations about the curse. Adriana Barraza (Oscar nominee for Babel) has a fun, scenery-chewing cameo as a mystic who holds a seance.

I was entertained by Raimi’s audacity. He is so broadly, joyfully over-the-top that his film is old-fashioned in an endearing kind of way. Drag Me to Hell is an unpretentious, irony-free freak show that revels in the ingenuity of its creep-out effects (eyeballs! blood! staples!) so much that even though I wasn’t particularly scared by the film, I was happy to go along for the gonzo ride.