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Drag Me to Hell

One Hell of a Return

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Ah, those gypsies and their mystical curses. What will they think of next? Nothing good, I suspect. Ancient curses and supernatural spells have long given filmmakers license to indulge their most exotic fantasies, inspiring scenarios so deliriously macabre they seem more surreal than shocking. And perhaps no American director has proved more adept at playing on our fascination with the occult than Sam Raimi.

Raimi, whose cheerfully demented, modestly budgeted Evil Dead trilogy helped earn him the reins to the Spider-Man franchise, has been conspicuously absent from the horror scene since 1990ís Darkman. Drag Me to Hell, his hungrily anticipated return, finds the director reaching into a dusty bag of tricks and delivering surprisingly fresh results.

If anything, Drag Me to Hell feels so familiar at times that it plays like a winking homage to Raimiís past. Demonic possessions? Frenetic slapstick? Malevolent spirits that go bump in the night? Theyíre all here, exquisitely preserved and repackaged for a generation weaned on the humorless sadism of movies like Saw and Hostel.

Gone are the buckets of fake blood and deliberately gratuitous gore of 1983ís Evil Dead. Drag Me to Hell, rated PG-13, is a far more sanitized film though no less effective -- and the production values are considerably higher, befitting an auteur whose last three films rank among the highest-grossing ever. But Raimiís sensibilities have changed very little.

Thatís a good thing. Without his ear for darkly comic dialogue and his unmatched flair for nauseating sight gags and playfully overwrought set pieces, Drag Me to Hell might seem very ordinary indeed. The story is laughably basic: Christine (Alison Lohman, of Matchstick Men) is an upwardly mobile loan officer charged with the unenviable task of denying an old woman an extension on her mortgage payments. Incensed by the slight, the vengeful Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) sentences Christine to eternal damnation. (Given her powers, one might ask, why didnít she sentence her to pay off the mortgage? But that would be another story.)

What follows is not exactly a high-minded indictment of Americaís banking mores. With three days to rid herself of the curse before an ancient demon comes calling for her soul, Christine, her fiercely loyal boyfriend (Justin Long) and an overmatched psychic (newcomer Dileep Rao) make a frantic bid for a stay of execution. The forces of unspeakable evil, however, are in a less-than-forgiving mood.

Some have praised Drag Me to Hell as a "terrifying return to form" for Raimi, and while I might take issue with the choice of adjectives -- the movie is maddeningly tense and breathlessly paced, but rarely terrifying -- it is certainly a welcome return. Rather than inviting the gag reflex with scenes of severed limbs and indescribable torture, Raimi takes a manic, tongue-in-cheek approach to horror that seems to revel in its own gleeful absurdity. Needless to say, heís been missed.