Unlike so many horror movies, which provide periodic jolts between stretches of negligible dialogue and character non-development, “Drag Me to Hell” composes an underscore of terror that will keep its admirers on edge for the entire running time. Once the plot gets rolling, “Hell” pretty much never stops being terrifying — or at least palpably suspenseful.
Bank employee Christine (Alison Lohman) constantly has to prove herself: Her prospective in-laws don’t think the farm-raised, white-collar girl has the societal standing to marry her professor boyfriend Clay (Justin Long), while at work, she’s competing with suck-up new employee Stu (Reggie Lee) for an assistant manager position.
Convinced that her promotion will improve her standing with Clay’s parents, Christine follows the advice of her boss Mr. Jacks (David Paymer) and takes a tough stand with bank customer Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), an elderly woman who has already gotten two extensions on her mortgage. The lady begs for help, but when Christine instead calls for help from security, the mortified old woman puts a gypsy curse on her.
Soon, a goat-demon starts tormenting Christine, and a psychic tells her that in three days, unless she can somehow reverse the curse, she’ll be dragged off to hell. (And you thought your job sucked.)
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The PG-13 horror movie, while lucrative, has become the most misbegotten of sub-genres; stripped of their ability to gross out audiences with buckets of viscera, filmmakers instead turn to cheap, cat-jumping-out-of-the-closet scares.
Never send a hack to do an auteur’s job, however — Raimi, who redefined modern horror with his “Evil Dead” films, shows how it’s done, from brilliantly-paced moments of suspense to having bugs, spittle and other slimy objects going into people’s mouths.
It’s been said that everyone’s afraid of walking face-first through a cobweb, but I’d argue that having goop or maggots flying into your open mouth is just as universal a gross-out.
Lohman gamely moves through her paces, although her youthful appearance can be as off-putting as Leonardo DiCaprio’s sometimes is — she’s pushing 30 but still looks 12. It’s occasionally hard to watch someone who resembles a child getting put through the wringer that Raimi has created for this character. Raver sinks her teeth (and some really nasty dentures) into the kind of role that Maria Ouspenskaya made a career out of in the old Universal horror pictures, although I imagine somewhere there’s a Romany Anti-Defamation League polishing up a press release in protest of the film’s constant references to “gypsy curses.”
I haven’t sweated, squirmed and yelped so much in a theater since the “Dawn of the Dead” remake, but that’s the equivalent of a standing ovation in horror-movie terms. Get ready to cover your eyes (and your poor defenseless mouth) during this delightfully terrifying treat.
Follow msnbc.com Movie Critic Alonso Duralde at http://www.twitter.com/MSNBCalonso.
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