Sam Raimi’s self-styled “spook-a-blast” brand of horror-comedy, which is said to be inspired by those cheapo carnival rides that alternately jerk patrons around in pitch dark and attempt to menace them with generic, cheesy ghouls, is best exemplified by the latter two Evil Dead films and his latest. A giddy procession of intermittently successful jump scares and make-you-vomit sight gags strung together by a story so elemental it could be rendered in mural form on a funhouse wall, Drag Me to Hell is a cheerfully childish piece of horror, devoid of dread and uninterested in suffering, motivated instead by an impish desire to inflict innocuous, seat-buzzer-level scares that leave no lingering unsettlement as they evaporate. The film’s vehicle for these plentiful one-off jolts, which are invariably accompanied by loud-as-possible music cues, is a curse that manifests itself as a poltergeist and is figuratively hung around the neck of Christine (Alison Lohman), a so-innocent-she-lisps bank loan officer whose momentary betrayal of her own bleeding-heart ethics lands her on the shit list of an elderly gypsy customer, Mrs. Ganush (a sufficiently despicable Lorna Raver).
Under pressure to keep pace with a brown-nosing colleague (Reggie Lee) angling for her rightful promotion, Christine denies Ganush’s third mortgage extension, a fateful mistake she immediately compounds by screaming for help when Ganush collapses in a fit of hem-grabbing beggary. For the sin of “shaming” a proud woman, Christine is cursed to be targeted by the Lamia, a goat-demon from hell with a three-day taunting program that includes clomping its hooves within earshot, generating indoor wind gusts strong enough to send the victim crashing into furniture, and ultimately erupting from the earth to drag the accursed down, a succinct demonstration of which is given in the film’s bold prologue. To combat the Lamia, Christine enlists the services of Platinum card-accepting psychic Rham (Dileep Rao, being unnecessarily dour) and relies on emotional support from skeptical boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) while she gradually sheds the mousy naïvete evinced by her early scenes to arrive as a more confident, self-actualizing heroine who is believably desperate for survival, a characteristic best conveyed in a hilarious, well-timed scene involving a kitchen knife that rebuts the assertion of her boss (David Paymer) that she may not be able to “make the tough decisions.”
Unfortunately, cleverly executed scenes prove surprisingly rare in Raimi’s film, which tends to eschew earned shocks and carefully balanced setups and payoffs in favor of a surfeit of standalone, maximum gross-out gags, such as a projectile nose-bleeding moment and a mouth-full-of-maggots episode; these occurrences seem more like the kind of thing destined to be nominated for MTV Movie Awards than the sophisticated mélange of high tension and cartoony asides seen in the director’s better films like Darkman, with which this bears some passing similarity in its boulder-rolling-downhill momentum and fondness for destructive mayhem. The plentiful bodily-fluid spills and prankish, pop-up shocks in Drag Me to Hell are more on-the-nose than we’ve come to expect from our Tex Avery of kinetic spookiness, and the overall results occasionally feel more like a low-energy experiment than a well-considered story, but thanks to the apt choice of an engaging leading lady and Raimi’s laudable ability to keep the audience primed for more until the credits roll, it’s an acceptable, if minor, piece.