Christine Brown (Alison Lohmann), a loan officer in a Los Angeles bank, refuses – for sound personal, professional and aesthetic reasons – to grant an extension on a mortgage payment owed by Mrs Ganush (Lorna Raver), a gypsy crone with false teeth and a literally evil eye. When Mrs Ganush goes down on her knees and begs, Christine ‘shames’ the hag and winds up cursed – she is attacked in the garage bu the surprisingly sinewy old woman and has a breathed-on button returned to her, which means a ‘lamia’ from Hell will persecute her invisibly for a few days and then bear her away to eternal torment.
Sam Raimi, who co-wrote with his brother Ivan and directed, returns to mid-budget return to Tales From the Crypt-style horror after a sojourn in blockbuster superheroics with an entry in a tiny sub-genre of films about folks under curses. It gives the nod to notable precursors Night of the Demon (from MR James’s ‘Casting the Runes’), in the business about giving the victim a set time to stew before the fiend is made manifest and back-and-forth about the cursed object (Christine can shift the curse simply by giving the button away), and Stephen King’s ‘Richard Bachman novel Thinner (filmed by Tom Holland) with its unembarrassed use of the ‘gypsy curse’ trope. However, contemporary audiences are more likely to see this as a broader take on the curses found in Asian ghost movies and their American remakes (Raimi’s Ghost House pictures were behind the US Grudges). There’s an explicit detour into Ring territory in a fake climax as Christine digs up the dead Mrs Ganush during a thunderstorm and tries to assuage the demon by shoving an envelope down her throat – as in Ring/The Ring, she makes a vital error in reading the rules of the curse which means that, after a brief seemingly happy ending, the lamia bites back with even more fury.
It has the feel of something which could easily have been trimmed down to twenty minutes and stuck together with some other stories and a frame with Peter Cushing reading Tarot cards on a train or running an antique shop. Heavily signposted business about getting the envelope with the button mixed up with an identical envelope containing a coin from the heroine’s boyfriend’s collection too obviously strings out much of the third act. The film also has to overegg the protagonist’s character to keep us on her side – she’s unsure in her relationship with a loving if glib pyschology professor boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) because his parents think he could do better and edgy at work because a rival (Reggie Lee) is toadying to her boss (David Paymer) to beat her out for a promotion, and has neuroses to do with being born on a farm, once being overweight, having to learn to lose a non-specific rural accent and being mistaken for a secretary or a bank teller. Mrs Ganush is a comical monster, who leaks goo from her mouth as she gums the heroine and steals sweeties from the bank’s courtesy bowl, and clearly relishes the thought of taking out her miseries on someone chosen almost at random – being almost as actively violent after death, as Christine tangles with her corpse by falling over it when she barges into the family wake or tussles with it in a muddy grave. It would carry more emotional weight if the lead character were a heartless bitch but reformed Scrooge-style under the pressure of the supernatural death sentence and the witch weren’t such a fairytale monster – but this isn’t that kind of a horror film, and delivers instead a PG-13-level thrill ride with a side order of gruesome black humour. It holds back on a few things that might compromise the teen-appeal rating (a cat is killed offscreen), but still manages to pop eyeballs, spew bodily gunge, get icky with maggots and flies and throw as much at the petite blonde Lohman as Raimi tossed at Bruce Campbell in the Evil Dead sequels.
The process of Christine’s torment, exacerbated by Clay’s calm and wry rationality, runs through Entity-style battering by an invisible bruiser and breakdowns as she spouts blood from her nose over her boss or cracks up completely during a farcically excruciating meal with Clay’s parents (Chelcie Ross, Bonnie Aarons) to increasingly desperate consultations with a psychic (Dileep Rao) who is ambiguously helpful but cagey and an exorcist (Adriana Barraza) out to settle a long feud with the lamia set up in the prologue. Christine reluctantly sacrifices her cat, which fails to buy off the lamia, and an exorcism attempt involving a goat and a medium devolves into an Evil Dead-style display of cackling levitation and general sound and fury – but the home stretch harps on morality as the heroine finds she can’t even bring herself to pass on the deadly envelope to her thoroughly weaselly workplace rival. Drag Me to Hell keeps hitting the audience with scary sights and sounds, on the ghost train principle of throwing a ‘boo’ or an ‘uck’ in every couple of minutes, but there’s a slight mismatch between the ruthlessness of its storyline and the generally soft-centered, fun style of multiplex creepshow.