Movie Review: Drag Me To Hell

Drag Me To Hell2009. Starring Alison Lohman and Justin Long. Directed by Sam Raimi.

There used to be something of a moral code to horror movies. People were victimized or terrorized for a reason, earning the torment through a flaw in character. Maybe they cheated or lied and, in doing so, forfeited the audience’s sympathy. Maybe like Dr. Frankenstein, they really asked for it. That violation of morality made them a deserving victim — hell, even Janet Leigh’s character stole a stack of money before checking into the Bates Motel.

Somewhere along the line — maybe it was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or Night of the Living Dead, or through the it-really-happened chill of In Cold Blood — horror began being visited upon random people who didn’t have it coming.

Today’s horror fans have to face some very troubling views of human nature. The Saw series, or the mercifully brief series of Hostel movies, made the imperfect and often corrupt nature of human beings an excuse to graphically torture and degrade. David Fincher’s Se7en, which I have to admit to liking, was at least inventive in how it used the deadly sins as an excuse for torment and murder.

I remember the long-ago mix of terror and excitement I’d experience from reading a copy of Creepy or Eerie magazine. Controversial in their day (and banned in my childhood home), they featured wonderfully illustrated tales of people who always did wrong, usually motivated by greed or jealousy, then got their comeuppance in extremely gory and horrifying ways.

Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell feels like a throwback to the dread and queasiness that resulted from the dark morality rules learned in those forbidden pages.

Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is trying to better herself — when we first see her, she is practicing her diction on the way to work as a loan officer in an LA bank. She’s hoping all that self-improvement results in a small promotion that will make her more deserving of her professor boyfriend (Justin Long) and more appreciated by his wealthy parents. One of the requirements of the job she wants is “making tough decisions,” which causes her to deny a mortgage extension to a desperate customer, an elderly Gypsy woman (played with repulsive, phlegmy malice by Lorna Raver).

Suffice it to say, the spurned lady doesn’t take it well. After a nasty physical confrontation, she places a curse on the young loan officer, who is advised by a psychic that a demon will torment her for three days, before returning to take her soul to hell.

For such a familiar story — complete with the period of disbelief in the curse, the haunting and dread, and the race against time to escape — Raimi makes the story very entertaining. The director better known for Spiderman has certainly progressed from the camera-strapped-to-a-board approach of the Evil Dead movies, but he infuses Drag Me To Hell with the same humorously dark violence, cheap and sudden shocks, and copious amounts of disgusting and gooey fluids — much of which finds itself launched into Christine’s screaming face.

I’m holding back on all the twists and spoilers, but Drag Me To Hell is not only gruesomely enjoyable, but clever and capable of surprises. Lohman goes through quite a bit of abuse as the insecure careerist who’s pissed off the wrong old lady. (Christine’s diction lessons never quite took — I love the scene where she adorably admits, “I’m thcared.”) But faced with demonic stalking and eternal damnation, she finds the resolve to get down and dirty, and do what needs to be done to undo the curse.

But I bet her loan officer character never again wrongs a customer just to get a promotion. You know what they say about payback.

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