Drag Me To Hell

Drag Me To Hell

***1/2

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

This is old school horror, shocks aplenty, startles to spare. It's got fine special effects, a strong central performance from Alison Lohman, and, well, it's by Sam Raimi.

That last one is pretty much the only reason that it's worth seeing. Raimi directs, writes with the help of his brother Ivan, and Ted has a cameo. There's no immediately evident Bruce Campbell, though, so the film was never going to be perfect. It's scary, undoubtedly so; your reviewer actually yelped at one point. However, as a return to the genre after the Spider-Man films it manages to include a whole stack of annoying cliches, stereotypes and habits that it could well do without.

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Lohman is no stranger to cult directors, having worked with Ridley Scott on Matchstick Men and Tim Burton on Big Fish. Here she's Christine Brown, a loan officer at a small bank, lacking in confidence and desperate for a promotion. Her competitor is played by Reggie Lee (briefly visible in Star Trek's Kobayashi Maru sequence) as an office politician of the worst order, oleaginous and duplicitous. Industry veteran David Paymer is Mr Jacks, their boss, and it's as part of an effort to impress him that Christine sparks the curse that drives the film.

Christine is a small-town girl with a psychology professor for a boyfriend. His parents don't approve of her, she's desperate to achieve, and beyond all that she has self-image problems. Not only do we see her gazing in a cake shop window, she finds an old photograph of herself at a farming competition which, in a triumph of subtlety, displays her as a child with a distended belly beside a giant pig, in front of a banner that reads 'Miss Pork Queen'.

That willingness to allow the audience to find hidden meanings extends to Mrs Ganush, an elderly gypsy about to be evicted. She's blind in one eye, seriously ill, and desperate. Every effort is taken to make her disgusting; she coughs, spits, bleeds, takes her teeth out, drums the table with nails that resemble rotting floorboards trimmed into claws, even steals the boiled sweets from Christine's desk. Christine, with all her laboured self-confidence issues, denies her a third extension to the mortgage deadline, and lo, there is a curse.

Not immediately, of course; there's a confrontation in the car park which in and of itself would earn the film its 15 rating. It's violent, bloody, frightening, and at the end of it we hear the key term - Lamia. The audience knows some of what's coming thanks to the opening titles, which, as with My Bloody Valentine 3D, is probably the best bit of the film. The opening sequence (set in 1969) features a boy similarly cursed, and his horrible fate. The titles then loop back and forth through the three days of the curse, creeping shadows as ink in water and on the page, woodcuts, etchings, and almanacks spelling out the stations of the consequences of those who cross the gypsies.

That it's the threat of supernatural consequences that is meant to induce kindness to strangers is poor enough, but the nightmare before Christine is proof positive that it only takes one bad day for your life to be ruined forever. Without giving too much away the curse manages to damage everything good, even driving her to behavioural extremes that one would expect her boyfriend to be a bit more concerned about. He does a lot for her, and she for him. Justin Long (who's been in a lot, beyond those Mac/PC adverts with John Hodgman) is not the first choice for what amounts to a romantic lead, but he's not bad.

This is the movie debut of Dileep Rao, who is quite effective as the fortune teller Christine consults. He guides her through the vagaries of the Lamia curse, but the initial encounter between him and Long isn't great; the South Park episode with John Edward does a better job of explaining cold reading than our psychology professor. He is the one whose magical texts cause Christine to make sacrifices she wouldn't otherwise have made, and it's through him that she goes to Shaun San Dena, the spiritualist who fails to save the boy in the prologue. She leads an effects heavy seance in an effort to save Christine, but, well, this is a horror movie. Adriana Barraza adds substance to a role that depends on our ability to believe that people will believe her. Admittedly, once the CGI kicks in it's not really a question of faith, but she does well with everything around it.

The haunting is, as stated, frequently startling, but it's also often disgusting. There are maggots, flies, blood, goo, slimes, squashing, crashing, smashing, and some banging and ominous shadows. It's not for the squeamish, but that's hardly going to be a surprise.

Sadly, for all the new, relatively new, and relatively obscure cast members in Drag Me To Hell, the rest of the film isn't anywhere near as fresh. Elements of the score are recycled, there's some from The Exorcist, some Morricone too. Aspects of the plot are stale, if not offensive; the gypsy curse might well be a classic of the genre, but this is the space year 2009, and one would hope that stereotypes with such bloody consequences in the 20th century might be a thing of the past.

Reviewed on: 26 May 2009
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Drag Me To Hell packshot
A bank clerk having a bad day crosses an old gypsy woman and is afflicted with terrible curse.
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