I can sum up everything wrong with this movie in two words: gypsy curse. Gypsies and their curses are the kiss of death when it comes to horror films. To my knowledge, no one has ever made a good one propelled by this particular plot device. It is itself a kind of curse; stick a gypsy in your picture and face the fact that it’s doomed to blow.
So you have to wonder what the director of the revered Evil Dead trilogy was thinking when he decided to make a gypsy curse central to its story. Sam Raimi, after all, is one of the finest, savviest filmmakers working today. He does it all — horror, the Spider-Man series, even suspense classics such as A Simple Plan and The Gift. He’s way too smart not to have realized what a risk he was taking by sticking a gypsy in his new picture.
And yet here we have this cartoon of a Hungarian crone by the name of Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) front and center in Drag Me to Hell. She pays a visit to her bank in the hope of getting a third extension on her mortgage and finds herself across a desk from comely, upwardly mobile Los Angeles loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman). The young woman wants to help Mrs. Ganush out. She also wants to become assistant manager, and her boss (David Paymer) has made it clear she needs to prove she can make “the hard decisions.”
When Christine chooses career over compassion, her boss is delighted. Mrs. Ganush, not so much. Walking alone later to her car in a deserted underground garage, Lohman is surprised to find the old woman’s yellow junker waiting. She is considerably more surprised to find her dissatisfied customer behind her in the back seat.
A word here about Mrs. Ganush’s appearance: She’s straight out of Central Casting, only hokier: Who walks around contemporary L.A. in old gypsy rags? She’s blind in one eye. It’s mottled by a cataract-type growth the size and roughly the color of a nickel. The most ridiculous touch, though, is the jagged, rotted dentures she jettisons repeatedly in the service of various gag-me effects. Are there dentists who custom-manufacture dental appliances like these? How exactly do dentures rot?
But back to our scene: The old hag attacks Christine, clawing her flesh and ripping out her hair. Apparently a fan of the Bourne series, the loan officer reacts by smashing her vehicle into one parked car after another, sending the old woman — and her false teeth — flying in all directions. At one point, Ganush attempts to gum her victim to death. At another, Christine fights back by stapling her attacker in the face. When the smackdown is over, the gypsy rips a button off the banker’s coat and puts a curse on it. Like she couldn’t have just done that back at the bank. (Not to mention, why didn’t she use her supernatural connections long ago to resolve any fiscal woes?)
The problem with Raimi’s latest is that nothing in it is the slightest bit shocking, unnerving or remotely scary. The director embraces the cornball and the camp instead. Christine and her boyfriend (Justin Long) consult a psychic (Dileep Rao), for example, to get the 411 on curses. Turns out a goat/devil-type demon called the Lamia basically punks you for three days and then literally yanks you into the underworld.
Among our heroine’s tribulations: a projectile nosebleed that hoses down her boss; a fly that wriggles into her mouth and buzzes around inside her; someone pukes up a dead kitten; eyeballs pop out of their sockets; Christine is hurled around by invisible forces; in their various confrontations, Mrs. G. shoves her arm elbow-deep down Christine’s throat and vomits several gallons of maggots onto Christine’s face. It’s like “Fear Factor,” only without, you know, the artistic merit.
Raimi actually stoops to staging a séance in the final act, but even then he hasn’t hit bottom. The last 20 minutes hinge on a Surprise Twist you’ll see coming a mile away. So, to be fair, the movie isn’t entirely devoid of shocks. The ending is so lame and clumsily choreographed, its ineptness will take you by surprise.
Drag Me to Hell is rated PG-13. Most horror movies are rated R. If I had to guess why Raimi made this instantly forgettable film and imbued it with such a jokey, giggle-at-the-gross-stuff vibe, I would hazard the theory that he saw a massive untapped market — teens who’ve never been able to buy a ticket to a real horror movie before. He may have figured they’d happily fork over their allowance for the chance to get in on the gore. Other than that, you’ve got me. Fifteen-year-olds may consider this grab bag of joy-buzzer jolts and tired tropes the bee’s knees. The rest of us are likely to find it one hell of a drag.