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Drag Me To Hell (15)

One hell of a fright-fest

Either by accident or design Sam Raimi's delightfully named thriller has caught the era of economic mismanagement and popular retribution down to a ghoulish T.

Drag Me to Hell presents the spectacle of a banker being cursed, half-strangled, vomited upon, pinged around a room like a Lotto ball, surprised by an eyeball in a slice of cake, threatened with eternal hellfire and – poetic justice here – ripped off by a pawnbroker. Audiences may find it difficult at times to suppress a cheer. Or a nervous belly laugh, come to that, because its moments of Grand Guignol, repulsive and obscene as they are, also give the funny bone a good tweak.

Yet the grotesque punishment meted out to the banker hasn't quite the cathartic frisson you might expect. For one thing, Christine Brown is only a humble loans officer at a bank, where her manager has warned her that she'll only clinch that promotion if she shows herself capable of making "tough decisions". For another, she is played by Alison Lohman, whose sweetly innocent face make her look as if she might have Hannah Montana posters on her bedroom wall (she's actually 30 this year). In any case, that tough decision comes her way when a witchy looking crone with one eye and fingernails of nicotine brown stops by her desk to ask for an extension on her mortgage payments. Her name is Mrs Ganush, but she might as well be called Mrs Lugosi, such is her terrifying mittel-European strangeness. Christine, mindful of the promotion, refuses her request, then looks mortified when the old woman gets down on her knees to beg. It all ends rather unpleasantly when Christine has to call security and the outraged client, her home lost to foreclosure, is ejected.

But the word "unpleasant" doesn't cover what happens next: Christine is attacked in her car by the vengeful Mrs Ganush, a scene that brings out all of Raimi's inventive grotesquerie. Who else would think of an old biddy losing her dentures as she moves in to bite her foe, and ends up slobbering over Christine's face with her toothless maw. In a word: ugh. The upshot of this savage tussle is Mrs Ganush tearing off a button from Christine's coat and calling down a Gypsy curse that will see her dragged to hell by an avenging demon named the Lamia. Don't you just hate it when that happens?

With swift despatch, Christine starts to suffer the kind of unearthly ordeal that Raimi last visited on Bruce Campbell in his Evil Dead movies. A nosebleed at work turns into a veritable spray-painting of her office and (doh!) her boss ("Did any of it get in my mouth?" he bleats). A polite dinner at the house of boyfriend Justin Long's mum and dad puts Meet the Parents to shame for look-away-now humiliation. The pots and pans in her kitchen begin a ghost dance, then she's pursued up to her bedroom and bounced from floor to ceiling by an invisible tormentor.

Does Christine really deserve such a fate? In Raimi's pitiless scheme of things "deserve" has got nothing to do with it. One thinks of poor Bill Paxton finding the stolen loot in A Simple Plan – Raimi's most accomplished and grown-up movie – and bringing catastrophe down on himself for daring to keep it. Christine seems to have been singled out from the start: the opening shot shows her driving along the freeway in a green car, which every screenwriter in Hollywood knows is an ill-starred colour. She is patronised in the workplace, and hides a troubled family background. The curse fell on her for a momentary error of judgment, not because she's a bad person. And the more we feel sorry for her, the worse things get. Desperation drives her to a back-street seer (Dileep Rao), whose first bit of advice is that she sacrifice a beloved animal. "I'm a vegetarian!" she protests, insisting that there are some things she just won't do. Comes the seer's chilling reply: "You'll be surprised what you'll be willing to do when the Lamia comes for you." Yikes! In a superb comic swerve Raimi cuts to Christine at home, calling out for her pet kitten with a curious edge in her voice.

Raimi, who crossed over to big-budget respectability with the Spider-Man franchise, crosses right back here to deliver something that's cheap, nasty and rather magnificent. The peals of horrified laughter that Drag Me to Hell provokes will be music to his ears. Even as the film gets seriously spooky, you can't help picking up a discordant note of farce.

To be honest, this fright-fest might have rattled us more had Lorna Raver, as the egregious Mrs Ganush, not disappeared so early. It's one thing to be stalked by a shadow demon crawling up nostrils; but it's not half so scary as a one-eyed witch who pops up from the back seat of a car and tries to strangle you. I reared so suddenly in my own seat at that moment I almost got whiplash. Hang on to your arm-rests – this film will give you a jolt.