The wait for a truly scary movie -- for a rambunctious, slam-bang, all-out, slap-you-sideways horror picture -- is finally over. With Drag Me to Hell, director Sam Raimi temporarily shrugs off the A-list status the Spider-Man movies earned him and returns to his disrespectable Evil Dead ways. The blood and guts may have been tamped way, way down, but the manic intensity and delirious mayhem of those earlier zombie romps remain intact.
On a story level, Drag Me to Hell sounds like the kind of movie drive-ins were once built for: Alison Lohman stars as Christine, a bank loan officer angling for a promotion who denies a craggy old hag (Lorna Raver) an extension on her eviction notice, then discovers the nasty crone has put a curse on her, guaranteeing a visit in three days from a demon named ''Lamia'' that will do to her what the film's title promises.
That sliver of a plot is all well and good, but Drag Me to Hell isn't the movie to turn to if you're in the mood for a complex, layered yarn. You want story, go read Dostoevsky. Raimi, who co-wrote the script with his brother Ivan, essentially turns Drag Me to Hell into a procession of set pieces, each wilder than the last, with a few dialogue scenes sprinkled in to allow the audience to catch its breath.
The first big sequence is also one of the film's high points, a free-for-all between Christine and the old woman, much of it taking place inside Christine's car. Hair is pulled, skin is scratched, and staplers are taken to eyeballs.
The smackdown goes on and on and on -- the aged Mrs. Ganush has a lot more fight in her than her ghastly, frail appearance would suggest -- and just when you think the showdown is finally over, it starts all over again. Raimi obviously relishes the opportunity to work the audience into a frenzy repeatedly, using Drag Me to Hell's relatively low budget as a source of inspiration and creativity.
There are several long stretches in Drag Me to Hell of nothing more than cleverly employed shadows, deft editing and ingenious sound effects: The limitations of the PG-13 rating have inspired Raimi to discover the joys of suggestion and menace, two elements too often missing from contemporary horror films. Yet there are precious few times when Raimi fails to achieve the scares he's gunning for. Only a protracted seance sequence and a way-too-telegraphed plot twist fall flat.
The rest of Drag Me to Hell, which was designed to be best enjoyed in a crowded theater with the THX cranked to 11, plays like a demonic Looney Tunes cartoon, right down to a scene in which an anvil drops on a character's head, and eyeballs go flying, like Wile E. Coyote's. The movie is a goofy, ridiculous blast, and yet Raimi means business: Even the precociously cute kitty isn't safe in this one. Ardent cat lovers will be aghast: Everyone else will be too busy laughing and screaming to complain much.
You can read my interview with Sam Raimi from last Sunday's Herald here.