The blending of comedy with horror has always been especially tricky business. An effective balance between the two is almost never possible. Either the filmmaker leans too hard toward comedy and fails to every really scare his audience or the picture is truly a horror film and the attempts at humor seem out of place at best or shockingly inappropriate at worst.
(An example of the latter is the recent remake of "Last House on the Left," a film which goes from disturbing depravity to a joke ending. Didn't work for me.)
To actually achieve this balance requires a truly talented filmmaker - something generally in short supply in the horror genre. While many directors get their start in horror, they usually move on to seemingly bigger and better things and rarely return to the genre that gave them their career.
For the longest time that seemed to be the path tread by director Sam Raimi, who first rose to prominence with 1981's "The Evil Dead," 1987's "Evil Dead II," and finally 1993's "Army of Darkness," the trilogy's conclusion. Hollywood's attention grabbed by the trio of horror-comedies, Raimi abandoned the genre. He made a western (1995's "The Quick and the Dead,") a drama (1998's "A Simple Plan,") a sports movie (1999's "For Love of the Game,") a supernatural thriller (2000's "The Gift,") and finally a whole lot of money (the "Spider-Man" trilogy.) Now he's back in "Evil Dead" territory with "Drag Me to Hell," an engaging horror-comedy that balances the scares and the laughs with greater precision than he ever managed with the "Evil Dead" series.
"Drag Me to Hell" is truly a horror movie for our age. The catalyst for the supernatural action that will unfold is a mortgage foreclosure. Alison Lohman stars as Christine Brown, a loan officer at a local bank who's up for a promotion to assistant manager. She's warned by her boss Jim Jacks (David Paymer) that the position will likely go to whoever demonstrates that they "can make the tough decisions." For Christine that challenge comes in the form of Sylvia Ganush (Lorna Raver,) an elderly Roma woman who is about to be thrown out of her home. Trying to better her chances for the promotion, Christine decides not to grant Sylvia a third extension. The creepy woman reacts by causing a scene at the bank and inflicting a curse upon Christine.
Over the next three days Christine is haunted and assaulted by both Syliva and various supernatural forces. She seeks support in her boyfriend Clay Dalton (Justin Long,) a young professor of psychology and a skeptic of the supernatural, and a New Age fortune teller named Rham Jas (Dileep Rao.) Together the three seek to understand the curse that has been inflicted on Christine and overcome it.
Raimi really knows how to push the right buttons to gross out his audience. The recurring motif of "Drag Me to Hell" is stuff falling into Christine's mouth - whether it be green goo, maggots, a fly, or a ghostly fist. This image is one of the keys that Raimi uses to straddle the line between horror and comedy. On the one hand it's horrific for something disgusting to fall into the protagonist's mouth. We wince. On the other, though, it's hilarious. Raimi knows this and exploits it - producing a unique sensation of horror-comedy.
The film also seems more focused on just creating individual moments of horror. The premise is more an excuse for Raimi to show how well he can get under our skin with creepy shadows and expertly-staged jump sequences.
Raimi also does a good job drawing on occult themes. Where in the "Evil Dead" trilogy he invoked the Necronomicon, here he employs the myth of the gypsy curse. This is much more effective stuff than the absurdities of haunted cell phones ("One Missed Call") haunted internet ("Pulse") and a haunted video tape ("The Ring.") This helps tilt the film's horror in a slightly more serious context, aiding Raimi in achieving his balance.
The film's characters are also more thoroughly developed and engaging than virtually every other PG-13 supernatural thriller. Lohman and Long are both likable and memorable while the supporting characters - everyone from Christine's bank co-workers to the New Age practitioners and the gypsy villain - make impressions.
Whether "Drag Me to Hell" will come to be a cult classic like Raimi's "Evil Dead trilogy" has yet to be seen. I'd bet that it won't but that's no reason not to enjoy it for what it is: an entertaining, somewhat thrilling experience that genre fans should enjoy and mainstream moviegoers can appreciate as well.