Folks think a witch who has familiar spirits
She could call up to pass a winter evening,
But won't, should be burned at the stake or something.
Summoning spirits isn't 'Button, button,
Who's got the button,' I would have them know.
Robert Frost, 'The Witch of Coös'
With violent anti-Roma sentiment once again on the rise across parts of Europe – notably in Hungary - now is hardly the time to exploit long-outmoded Gypsy stereotypes. But that's what Sam Raimi – inadvertently? – ends up doing in his much-ballyhooed return to lowish-budget horror (after three Spider-Man assignments), Drag Me To Hell.
Cobbling together – and opportunistically updating – elements of Night and the Demon and The Devil Rides Out, Raimi and his co-screenwriter brother Ivan (the family is reportedly of partly-Hungarian stock) concoct a fairly silly tale about an ambitious young bank-employee (Alison Lohman) whose tough-but-not-that-unreasonable action towards a loan-defaulting (not to mention thieving and physically repellent) Hungarian crone (Lorna Raver) invokes a disproportionately dire curse from the latter.
Cue an hour or so of repetitive boo-type scares - nearly all of them dependent on somewhat uneven digital imagery, many of them involving elaborate dream-sequences or hallucinations - as our gutsy heroine tries to escape the malediction which will apparently consign her to diabolical oblivion within three days.
The crass, old-school demonisation of superstition-haunted Roma (the chief devil, the Lamia, is "only summoned by gypsies for their darkest deeds") is compounded by Raimi's struggle to combine the horrific and comic elements of his story. Though often amusingly gross and entertainingly over-the-top, the results do occasionally cross the line into embarrasing and/or laughably ludicrous (notably the kitten-sacrifice, the fork in the cake, the talking goat and the 'dancing' demon.)
Eventually a despairing Lohman turns to a medium - Babel's Adriana Barraza – for help. the latter presumably able to dispel the direst of hauntings through the sheer occult power of her Oscar-nomination (Barraza fares OK, but is no match for, say, for The Orphanage's Geraldine Chaplin.)
The hand-me-down shenanigans are too dependent on caricature and implausibility/coincidence for comfort, and it's really only Raimi's propulsive directorial energy and brio (boosted by classy contributions from Mulholland Dr's DoP Peter Deming) that keeps things so watchable.
On balance, this is a moderately serviceable little chiller – and, with a pleasing (if daft) final twist, it's certainly a cut or two above the po-faced, dopey absurdities of Raimi's last pre-Spiderman effort, the now largely (and mercifully) forgotten/forgiven The Gift. Ah, but it could, and it really should, have been so much more.
27th/28th May, 2009
director : Sam Raimi
country : USA
year : 2009
run-time : 99m (BBFC)
seen : 27th May, 2009
cinema : The Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle
format : 35mm
paid : £5.60
MVP : Peter Deming (cinematographer)
respected second opinion : Christoph Huber, Le lectora provisoria