Sam Raimi's "Drag Me to Hell" feels like the director blowing off twenty years of steam. The slapstick/horror duality that he mastered with his brilliant "Evil Dead" movies, repeatedly and explicitly referenced in the new feature, marks a crowd-pleasing return to form. At once absurdly cheesy and amazingly self-aware, it's a reminder of the lunacy that brought acclaim to Raimi in the first place.
The script, by Raimi and his brother Ivan, offers paper-thin characterizations and mostly transparent special effects, but they emerge with such calculated glee that it would appear the director wants his audience to see the mechanics of the ride even as it thrills them. The story sets up a typical horror movie framework and delivers on its requirements. Hoping to impress her boss (David Paymer) and land a promotion, loan officer Christine (Alison Lohman, in a role originally meant for Ellen Page) chooses to evict a helpless woman of curious ethnic origin and promptly winds up getting cursed (perhaps a hat tip to Stephen King's "Thinner," but not the bad movie adapted from it). In the aftermath, she learns from a no-bullshit psychic (Dileep Rao) that she must protect herself from an evil being intent on dragging her to -- well, you know. Dealing with her skeptical boyfriend (Justin Long), Christine gradually falls into one viscerally unsettling situation after another: She vomits blood, swallows insects, and vainly attempts to save her soul by sacrificing her beloved kitty. Like Bruce Campbell in the brilliant early scenes of "Evil Dead II," the best moments of "Drag Me to Hell" occur when the protagonist's only co-stars are strange and dangerous forces. Needless to say, audience reactions at the Paramount screening last night thought it was a riot.
Of course, that doesn't mean the movie really scare anyone, at least for any lengthy duration. Raimi's elaborate sequences generally caused laughter -- not the nervous kind, but still the sound of contentment. As Christine deals with a series of increasingly ridiculous supernatural conundrums, the room fell for the gags as if they were visual punchlines. Those annoying moments when the soundtrack goes "boo!" rarely occur here. Raimi wants to entertain, so he covers all his bases with frightening images doing comical things. If "Evil Dead 2" relied on the Three Stooges as its primary referent, "Drag Me to Hell" aims more for the Looney Tunes approach, but it's the same basic playbook. At a time when studios relentlessly borrow from J-horror conventions, Raimi's new work finds distinction because he borrows from himself.