In an age when tired slasher remakes and sadistic torture films are rolled out almost every week, horror fans have had no reason to smile for a long time. The return of the Evil Dead director Sam Raimi to the genre, after a detour of almost two decades in thrillers and Hollywood blockbusters (most famously the Spider-Man series), is an enticing prospect not just for horror fans, but followers of mainstream cinema too.
Drag Me to Hell tells the story of Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) a young bank officer desperate for promotion who denies an elderly woman an extension on her mortgage - in effect evicting her from her home. But Christine soon finds out that she crossed the wrong old lady, when Mrs Ganush (Lorna Raver) places a curse on her. She laughs it off at first, but when things begin to get a little spooky Christine decides to visit a medium. Far from having her fears allayed. however, she learns that her soul now belongs to a demon called the Lamia, who will torment her for three days, before dragging her kicking and screaming to hell.
Christine is understandably concerned and the medium's first suggestion is that she make a blood offering, in the hope of appeasing the demon. This leads to scenes of the vegetarian Christine stalking her pet cat, worriedly whispering: "Here kitty-kitty! Here kitty-kitty!" When that doesn't work, Christine and her devoted boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) begin to take even more extreme action to prevent her from meeting a fate worse than death.
It might sound unbelievably schlocky - and it is - but the film's beauty is its simplicity. The morality tale presents a woman who has done wrong and whose selfish decision begets further wrongdoing, until she is almost unrecognisable as the person she once was. Despite its clear moral framework, however, this is not a film about right and wrong. Christine's penalty is not supposed to be proportional to her crime and this is the root of both the film's humour and its horror.
Most importantly, the set-up exists to kick-start a non-stop thrill-ride where anything goes. Drag Me to Hell is scary, but never sick or uncomfortable, and for every jump there's a giant belly-laugh too. Although a horror film in every sense, it has little in common with today's crop of frighteners. The gore is cartoonish and its physical performances are more Tom and Jerry than Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
It's visual aesthetic is also a breath of fresh air, combining such influences as golden-age horror, 1960s television and the world of EC Comics, most notably Tales from the Crypt, to conjure a world that is believable, but not quite our own. Most of the film's special effects are created with make-up, camera trickery and even stop-motion animation, with very little CGI in sight. Some of the performances have a soap-opera feel about them and the dialogue is fittingly hammy, but that was probably the point. Most important, the film's central performance, Lohman's tormented Christine, is a triumph. She not only impresses with her portrayal of the girl next door's emotional breakdown, but also with her physical performance battling the Lamia and the tenacious Mrs Ganesh.
If you thought that Raimi's turn as a blockbuster director might have neutered the man who once made genre classics on a shoestring, you will be pleasantly surprised. The same over-the-top visual style and talent for frights that got The Evil Dead banned in the UK is still evident here. Instead of being diluted, it is simply updated and told more coherently. Most importantly, Drag Me to Hell is a horror film that is proud of what it is, and delivers its promise brilliantly.