Sam Raimi wants to go home again. Often a drifting virtuoso in the years before finding his Spider-Man gig, with Drag Me to Hell, Raimi defaults to the horror romps that made his name (namely, the Evil Dead trilogy), bringing the old barreling camera and viscous ickiness back and serving a concept lowbrow enough to discourage A-listers.
Made early last year from a long-shelved script by Raimi and brother Ivan, Drag Me has a serendipitously timely victim. Playing a bank loan officer, petite, marshmallow-cheeked Alison Lohman bears the brunt of the film's supernatural humiliations. Lohman's Christine Brown is putting the finishing touches on her self-reinvention as a young professional: eye on a promotion, renting L.A. hillside real estate, and heading toward marriage with an upmarket boyfriend, Clay (that he's played by that icon of yuppie brand identity, smug MacBook shill Justin Long, is slyly perfect). Only leftover photographs and snide comments from Clay's WASP parents give unwelcome reminders of the tubby farm girl she used to be.
One day, smothering her conscience to impress her boss, Christine refuses to take pity on an ancient Gypsy woman about to lose her home (Lorna Raver, with a malevolent dead eye, horking up neon phlegm). The Louvin Brothers were right: Satan is real. The hag hisses a hex, and Christine's life plan is derailed by a chain of diabolical interventions that play like Seventeen magazine's "Embarrassing Moments," as written by Antonin Artaud. Christine spouts a geyser nosebleed at work, is ambushed by hallucinations while meeting potential in-laws, and starts studying animal sacrifice. A visit to a psychic confirms that she's had a demon sicced on her and that, if it isn't appeased in time, she'll get the title treatment.
With a PG-13 rating, the movie still smuggles a good amount of awfulness into adolescent minds. The running joke involves getting Christine into situations where her mouth — usually wide open, screaming — is invaded by incredibly vile things: a spelunking fly, a gush of grubs, embalming fluid. Otherwise, the harassing spirit comes on Moe Howard-style, snapping her head back and forth or unloading a full-body, across-the-room heave. If the booga-booga shocks are sometimes repetitive, Drag Me does its audience right in its last-act burst of giddy momentum, sustained by crack editor Bob Murawski through a burlesque exorcism (with a possessed goat, seemingly related to the cackling trophy in Evil Dead 2), Christine's dash to find a substitute for her place in hell, and the final slamming door of the title card.
The combination of Lovecraftian ichor and Hal Roach slapstick made Michigan State dropout Raimi a Fangoria star with 1981's resourceful Evil Dead, on the vanguard of an international groundswell of indie horrors. Kiwi-era Peter Jackson, Return of the Living Dead, Re-Animator, Frank Henenlotter, Nekromantik — these grassroots sickies, marked by tumor-black humor and try-anything camera work, were an inventive, sanguinary alternative to the flat-out-awful middle range of '80s movies (and, in some cases, résumés for a next generation of blockbuster technicians).
Was this throwback Raimi's way of collecting himself after disappearing into Spider-Man 3's narrative overgrowth? The sense of control is palpable; Raimi, ever the engineer, takes pleasure in screwing with audience identification, shifting between collaboration and contempt for our heroine. We take Christine's side against a brown-nose coworker (Reggie Lee, very good), Clay's pinky-in-air parents, and that Gypsy witch-bitch, whose grotesqueness forestalls sympathy — but it's squeaky-cute Christine who is all along the secret villain. On the surface an Evil Dead successor, Drag Me, an allegory with karmic logic from E.C. Comics and Jack Chick, replays as farce Raimi's A Simple Plan, also based on the boomerang return of transgression.
Christine getting bonged on the head with a cross for forgetting the Golden Rule doesn't indicate a particularly nuanced moral vision. Does Raimi — who began his career on a shoestring in the Tennessee woods and now commands $300 million bonanzas — actually believe professional ambition should be punished with eternal damnation?