'Drag Me to Hell" puts the goose in goosebumps. Writer/director Sam ("Spider-Man") Raimi's return to the horror genre is a hell of a good time. In an era when most fright films resemble a slaughterhouse tour, this is a trip to the funhouse. This gloriously imaginative tale of the devil foreclosing on a bank loan officer's soul hits like a wallop to the solar plexus followed by a tickle to the funnybone. The characters are solid, the shocks are grab-your-heart-medicine scary, the story glides from twist to twist with diabolical grace. And it's damned funny.
Raimi gets us to relate to Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) from her sweet, all-American name onward. In her very first scene, she's commuting in an economy car, speaking along with diction tapes to erase her Midwest accent. She walks past a bakery, gazing at the pastries as if they were diamond bracelets. She has a midlevel bank job, works hard, plays fair, follows the rules and has her eye on the assistant manager's position. It's less personal ambition than a way to win the favor of her boyfriend's upper-crust parents. Christine simply wants to be accepted.
When a poor old gypsy woman appeals for a third extension on her mortgage, the bank manager hands Christine the decision. She opts to foreclose -- an act made all the worse because she makes a conscious choice to switch off her compassion. The gypsy curses Christine. She will be tormented for three days by a demon, then her soul will be pulled down to hell. The road to damnation is indeed paved with good intentions. When the movie is over, you're not sure whether Christine deserved her fate or not.
Raimi made his breakthrough with horror -- 1987's "Evil Dead 2" is a scary/zany masterpiece -- but today he's a mature, skillful craftsman. He knows how to put us through the wringer with atmospheric chills and ambience. Raimi plays with our minds and expectations. His use of shadows scuttling along walls and window shades conjures exquisite tension: One of the movie's big jolts is the outline of cloven hooves seen beneath a door. There's not much gore. Rather than painting the frame red, Raimi makes his spooks spew phlegm, maggots and formaldehyde. The novelty is shocking.
While the demonic attacks on Christine are physically and psychically punishing, they're also sort of gonzo. It's as if the forces of darkness want Christine to experience a little campy Three Stooges slapstick along with the agony. The spirit of the movie comes through clearest in an exorcism scene, when a possessed psychic levitates in midair and does a mocking, devilish jig. The film takes a delicious detour into romantic comedy territory as Christine and boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) visit his parents for a dinner party at their mansion. It's difficult to make a good impression when you're under a gypsy curse.
Christine is a tough adversary for the demons assaulting her, and a scene in which she plays tomb raider in a rain-flooded grave raises our spirits. But Raimi, that trickster, has several more surprises up his sleeve, leading to a jaw-dropping climax. You'll stumble out of the theater shivering and giggling simultaneously.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186