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Drive-in Fun

Sam Raimi stops playing with his cash long enough to spin a hilarious horror-movie yarn

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Drag Me to Hell may be the best movie about a cursed button made in the last 44 years. Director Sam Raimi, who has earned billions of dollars with the Spider-Man franchise, has now returned to his roots: making grade-B horror flicks inspired by the drive-in movies of the 1960s.

While Drag Me to Hell has a fraction of Spider-Man 3's budget, it has a lot more charm, takes itself way less seriously and is probably twice as fun as trying to figure out which side of the spider-suit holds Tobey Maguire's package.

The plot is sort of an homage to all of the Gypsy-curse stories ever told, with the added modern twist that it revolves around a failed mortgage. Loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), on top of being the whitest person ever born, is trying to get a promotion. But she has sharp competition from the sleazy Stu Rubin (Reggie Lee), a sort of double-stereotype of the cunning Asian and the avaricious Jew.

While Christine's farm-bred innocence makes her beloved by her WASPy boyfriend, Clay Dalton (yes, he's named Clay Dalton!), her boss (David Paymer) thinks she needs to be more hard-core if she wants to be an assistant manager.

So when an impoverished Gypsy mystic comes in and asks for an extension on her mortgage payment, Christine turns her down. This winds up being a bad idea, because Gypsies have the magical power to curse the buttons on your coat.

Thus, Christine winds up being chased by a Lamia, an evil spirit of retribution that wants to drag her someplace horrible—probably hell, if the title is any indication. Actually, it's a mystery why the title is in the imperative affirmative, since what Christine wants is to not be dragged to hell.

But whatever. The whole thing is goofy fun, with lots of "scary" moments that wind up being more hilarious than terrifying. It's also rife with silly racial stereotypes. Christine was born on a farm, and her pale skin and blonde hair mark her as a gentle naïf. But her boyfriend's parents reject her, because they're even whiter than she is—so white that they're evil. Meanwhile, any nonwhite person either has magic powers or really likes money.

When Christine realizes she's cursed, she seeks out the aid of a new-age man from India, who, finding his powers insufficient, directs her to a magical Mexican. It's like a mystical reverse United Nations meeting, as the Gypsies, Mexicans and Indians fight to conquer or give aid to the white person.

Writer/director Raimi really knows how to spin a yarn. Not only must Christine escape the Lamia; she also has to prove that growing up on a farm doesn't make you worthless. Meanwhile, she's being hunted by an evil handkerchief. Plus, the Gypsy woman is always pulling out Christine's magnificently blonde hair, even after the Gypsy woman is dead.

All of these would be throwaway gags if the plot wasn't so tightly woven and so intricately twisty. Raimi and his brother Ivan, the pair who wrote Darkman and Army of Darkness, pull off the difficult task of fooling the audience while still producing a story that makes sense within its own logic.

The final scene in particular was a complete surprise to me. The film sets up two obvious endings, but neither occurs, and what does happen is far more satisfying. It's not just the plot that makes it work; the casting is genius. Lohman is so wide-eyed and innocent that you'd think she danced over from a Busby Berkeley musical. And her boyfriend is played by Justin Long, who, in stark contrast to his annoying hipster Mac-guy character, seems like he's just wandered out of an episode of Leave It to Beaver.

The effects also highlight the film's concept. They're so cheesy that I wondered if Christine was being swindled by the mediums and mystics who make the dead appear to her. Actually, that's one of the best misdirects in the film, because maybe that is what's happening. Maybe!

Even the narrative style works with the sly camp, as the opening 10 minutes involve people speaking in silly exposition with straight faces. Normally, I hate expository dialogue, but here, the point is that it's expository, and yet, it's so neatly woven into the whole feel of the film that it works on two levels.

Special props go to cinematographer Peter Deming, who knows exactly how to light a scene to create a superficial mood. Whether it's Lohman's glowing skin, or the Gypsy woman's ridiculously stained and broken dentures (and why would someone wear dentures that look like an old wino's teeth?), Deming nails it with comic perfection and raw, early-color-cinema overtness.

So, yes, Drag Me to Hell is hilarious fun. Its ending alone is worth the price of admission. And while there's nothing deep in its superficial story, the superficiality itself has a real depth, revealing a love of early color horror films, a winking comment on racial stereotyping and a story that works as a never-boring, always-engaging thrill ride.

Bless you, Sam Raimi, and your willingness to, at least temporarily, turn your back on that big pile of money that Moloch keeps shoving in your face, in order to give the people expertly executed drive-in fun.

Related Film

Drag Me to Hell

Official Site: www.dragmetohell.net

Director: Sam Raimi

Producer: Rob Tapert, Grant Curtis, Nathan Kahane and Joseph Drake

Cast: Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver, Dileep Rao, David Paymer, Adriana Barraza, Chelcie Ross, Reggie Lee, Molly Cheek, Bojana Novakovic, Kevin Foster, Alexis Cruz and Ted Raimi

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