What Has Happened to Sam Raimi?

c rexdrag me to hell 1h What Has Happened to Sam Raimi? Drag Me To Hell
Running time 99 minutes
Written by Sam and Ivan Raimi
Directed by Sam Raimi
Starring Alison Lohman, Justin Long, David Paymer, Lorna Raver

The true test of any successful horror flick is how wretched it makes you feel. At the very least, it should inspire a banquet of dread or offer a canapé of anxiety. After Drag Me to Hell you won’t mind walking home alone. You might even welcome a dark, deserted alley. It could help alleviate the anger of knowing you’ve been had. This is surprising, since Drag Me to Hell is the creation of writer-director Sam Raimi, whose body of work has been dedicated to turning more than one viewer’s hair white with the Evil Dead and Spider-Man franchises. The only thing he’s likely to turn a viewer to this time is the door marked exit.

For God only knows what reason, it begins with a prelude staged in 1969 in Pasadena. A kid steals a necklace from a gypsy wagon and takes refuge in one of those old houses that look like W. C. Fields lived there. The doors slam open; people fall to their deaths; the floor opens and sucks the little thief into a cauldron of flames; and the house goes back to looking like a silent-film set. Forty years later, a pretty loan officer in a California bank named Christine Brown (Alison Lohman, sometimes unfairly confused with Lindsay Lohan) refuses to extend a delinquent loan to an ancient hag with one eye and a mouth full of black incisors who has an epileptic fit in the middle of the bank and puts a curse on the young career girl. The nightmare begins. The crone attacks her in the underground parking garage, wrecks her car and rips a button from her coat. Soon she hears the same voices the little boy heard back in 1969. A bug crawls into her nose in the middle of the night. The next day at work she spews blood all over the bank. Her boyfriend (Justin Long) pooh-poohs the whole thing, until she bakes a harvest cake to impress his snobby parents and a human eye pops out of the batter with the kind of ensuing dinner-table chaos that guarantees a short engagement with no need for the bridal registry at Bloomingdale’s.

Seeking the help of a loopy carnival medium, Christine finds herself up to her pierced ears in corpse vomit, animal sacrifice, violent séances and open graves. Nothing stops the curse. The road to deliverance leads to the same old house in Pasadena containing the doorway to hell, but the movie doesn’t end there. There’s still a preposterous finale in a grotesque cemetery that tickles the funny bone more than it assaults the nervous system. Sound effects play an important part in the superficial mechanics (pots and pans rattle, glass shatters, powerful forces knock people to the floor), and to Mr. Raimi’s credit, there is no happy ending. Still, the first rule in spook films is “If you want to hold the audience’s attention, make them believe the horror could really happen”—a rule Drag Me to Hell ignores at its own peril. Nobody in the movie knows anything about gypsy witchcraft. Didn’t they see Maria Ouspenskaya in The Wolf Man?

rreed@observer.com