Sam Raimi took the stage tonight with a pratfall flat on his face, followed by some fumbling around with his speech that managed to somehow end up with his necktie threaded through his glasses and over his face, leading to a wistful, "Who turned out the lights?" from the beloved film geek icon.  His playful demeanor helped set just the right tone for the work-in-progress screening of his brand-new self-described "spook-a-blast," a nasty little bit of cyanide fun called "Drag Me To Hell."  It is a new Sam Raimi horror film, something many of his fans probably thought they'd never see.

And it is an indecent amount of fun.

Alison Lohman's had a hard time getting traction in her career.  Although she'd worked quite a bit beforehand, it was "Matchstick Men" where I first noticed her, and although she was in her mid-twenties when she made it, she looked like a fifteen year old.  She's never really had a great role since then, a movie-star role, the sort of role that helps define an actor for the public.  She may have finally found it as Christine, the put-upon hero of this film.  She's a loan officer at a small bank, bucking for a promotion, competing with a co-worker.  She's a former farm girl, a once-fat girl who managed to drop the weight, move to the city, start a career, and find a perfect boyfriend named Clay.

As the film opens, Christine is desperate to get that promotion.  She's told by her boss, Jim Jacks (David Paymer), that she's too nice.  She needs to be able to make hard decisions.  So when a sad creepy old lady who is having her house foreclosed comes in to beg for an extension on her mortgage payments, Christine denies her the extension.  And when Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) freaks out and has to be removed from the building, it's obvious that Christine has broken this old woman, humiliated her.

And does she get some payback?  Good god, yes.

Turns out, you don't want to make creepy old gypsy ladies who know how to put a curse on you very angry.  I know, seems crazy, but take my advice.  You never know when one of them might bust out some sort of curse on you, or how she'll do it.  Maybe it'll be by stealing a button of yours and then returning it.  Maybe it'll be by taking out her nasty old fake teeth and gumming someone's whole face.  Whatever the case, that's exactly what happens to Christine, and she's forced to turn to unlikely allies, including Rham Jas (Dileep Rao) and Shaun San Dena (Adriana Barazza), a psychic and a medium who may be trying to help her, or who may be trying to get into her wallet.  Either way, Christine's got a problem that will take extreme measures to resolve, and part of the fun of the film is seeing just how far she'll actually go, and just how crazy things are going to get before she can stop them.

Confession time:  I didn't like this script one little bit when I read it.  I thought it was overly familiar, dull, and fairly one-note.  And at the time, I was still at AICN, and I considered writing a script review, but it felt like until I could actually see what Raimi had planned, and see how much of the script by he and his brother Ivan he was going to shoot word-for-word, it was impossible to imagine what the film might actually be.  The film very much reflects that script I read, but the difference in my reaction is night and day, and that's because Raimi stepped up as a director here.  He obviously brought his A-game with him, determined to remind people just why his horror films are so beloved.  Working with newer collaborators like composer Christopher Young or old beloved collaborators like Peter Deming, who was the cinematographer on "Evil Dead 2," and who hasn't worked with Raimi since, seems to have resulted in a sort of perfect amalgam of Raimi's style.  These people all seem to share the same affection for Raimi's work that we do, because they have stepped up here, delivering great technical work across the board to support his vision.

And his "vision," of course, is a combination of total absurdity and absolute straight-faced fear.  That combination is something that terrifies studios most of the time.  Horror-comedies are only slightly easier to fund with studio money than a musical in Sanskrit about pedophilia.  In other words, they are poison.  They are hated by marketing departments because they feel like people can only handle one tone or one idea at a time.  Nonsense.  1200 people packed into the Paramount tonight, and they were able to take the ride, whipsawing back and forth between tones.  They laughed in the right places, and screamed in the right places, and it worked.  It worked gloriously.  I give Universal a lot of credit for having the stones to make this, even if it is PG-13.  I don't think this film needed to be gory.  There are a few moments that are visceral and skin-crawling, but it's not a wall-to-wall bloodbath at all.  It's more akin to Robert Wise's "The Haunting" in terms of using sound and editing to suggest, rather than make explicit.  Raimi's monster in the film, The Lamia, is barely glimpsed  Ever.  At one point, the Lamia enters the body of someone, and we get what looks to be a Deadite floating around the room for a few, attacking and yelling right back at Christine and Rham Das and especially Shaun San Dena.

Look, "Drag Me To Hell" is slight.  It's not about anything.  It's not trying to make a larger statement about the real world.  This is just plain fun.  It's a haunted house movie.  It's a curse movie.  It's a ridiculously fun movie, and in May, you'll be able to see it for yourself.  I may get back into it closer to release, to talk about Greg Nicotero's work as make-up artist on the film, to discuss if it's better or worse than "Army Of Darkness" (give you a hint... it's not worse) or "Evil Dead 2" (another hint... it's not better).  This is more than just another Sam Raimi film.  It's a thank you from one of our most fun horror filmmakers, saying to loyal fans that he does indeed still bleed the same color as all of us.

More SXSW coming up all week long, so keep checking back right here at Motion/Captured and HitFix.

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