"THE RETURN OF TRUE HORROR" shrieks the trailer for Drag Me to Hell, and I'm almost willing to agree without reservation. The film finds Sam Raimi in a very rare mood indeed, making a PG-13 ghost story that doesn't seem to understand the limitations that a PG-13 implies, going right ahead and presenting us with a faintly absurd but nonetheless aggressive non-stop cavalcade of jump scares made up of the finest unleaded nightmare fuel. At the same instant, nothing seems to shout "true horror" about the film whatsoever; "true horror" indicates, you'd imagine, that it's truly horrifying, an almost unbearable level of unbearable scares presented for your pants-wetting edification. And yeah, there's that, kind of. But I contend that "true horror" doesn't really lend itself to something as much damn fun as Drag Me to Hell, and by all means, it's one of the most effortlessly fun movies to come out all summer. You know how they sometimes compare a movie to a roller coaster ride? I've never completely understood what that meant. Here's what I do know: a big part of the fun of a roller coaster is the feeling you get that you're going altogether too fast and being whipped around too much, and you shall surely die any second now, except that during the ride you are quite aware of how silly a thing that is to think, so even while you have a vague feeling of existential terror, you also have a pleasantly shameful feeling about it, and it's almost as much fun to know that you're not in the slightest actual danger as it is to enjoy the adrenaline rush from your body believing that you are. That's exactly what Drag Me to Hell feels like: every single time you jump and scream at a perfectly stupid and predictable shock cut, you're all the more happier for recognising how stupid you're being.

This is part of the pleasure of giving yourself over to a rickety, old-fashioned scare picture made by a man who proved many years ago that he has nothing left to prove in the horror genre. If it's not The Evil Dead from 1981, it's Raimi's masterpiece Evil Dead II that has forever marked him as one of the truly gifted horror directors, and it is or at any rate ought to be a crystal-clear sign of his new film's tremendous effectiveness that it has more in common with Evil Dead II than any of his other films, hitting the same exact perfect balance of absolutely terrifying moments and ridiculously silly moments; and as in the former work, a whole lot of those moments occur at the exact same time, for Raimi has apparently not learned in the last 22 years that you aren't supposed to do that. Comic relief is meant to be separate from horror - it is the "relief" from horror, down to it's very name. Let us all pause to thank our individual deities that Raimi never learned the rules, and toss in an extra thanks for his temporary withdrawal from the high-budget world of the Spider-Man movies, so he could all show us once again what Shakespeare looks like the way it's meant to be done.

Alison Lohman - who? you may ask, to which I reply, that's correct (she's not a nobody, but she's still waiting on that breakout role) - stars as Christine Brown, a Pasadena loan officer fighting with a co-worker for promotion to the prestigious Assistant Manager position. To prove that she has the cojones to be Serious Motherfucking Banker, she turns down an old woman (Lorna Raver), looking for a third extension on her mortgage. This proves to be a bad idea. A really bad idea. The old woman, it turns out, is a gypsy witch of some sort, and she calls down a lamia on Christine; a lamia being a goat-shaped spirit that torments its victim for three days, just for the sake of being mean, and than drags the victim's spirit down to the fires of hell. Cue three days of torment, with Christine begging her skeptical boyfriend (Justin Long) and a friendly New Age spiritualist (Dileep Roa) to help her figure out any conceivable way to stay the curse before she has the full brunt of the movie's title brought down upon her head.

The script, co-written by the director and his brother Ivan (they previously collaborated on Darkman, Army of Darkness and Spider-Man 3) leaves no cliché unturned, but it isn't really striving for staunch originality. Far from it: if anything, the movie works at its best as a sort of compendium of various bits snatched here and there from other successful horror movies throughout the decades. Some music left on the cutting room floor when they were finishing The Exorcist, a mad old gypsy from the Universal monster movies, flesh-rotting ghosts straight out of J-horror, and maybe best of all, violent and assaultive sound design that recalls 1963's magnificent The Haunting. And a whole healthy bunch of Looney Tunes sight gags, but I should not want to end up starting a whole new thread of thought. The brilliance of the film lies in how briskly the Raimis whisk us through all this museum-quality trickery (think they don't realise that's what they're doing? Then why does the film open with an '80s-vintage Universal logo?), and how well Sam uses those well-worn techniques, enough so that even if there's hardly a single moment where you can't confidently predict what's going to happen next, it doesn't matter because you shall be scared and delighted nevertheless. And the bits and pieces that the brothers add - such as a repeated image of a floating lacy handkerchief that must represent the theoretical peak of terror that such an object can attain, or the ending that you might be able to predict, but certainly doesn't act like 99% of horror movie endings, wrapping up the unforgiving ping-pong game the filmmakers have played with our sympathies towards Christine (embodied tremendously well by Lohman - God, did I just write that? - as equal parts plucky heroine, spoiled brat, and terrified survivalist) in a manner that feels unmistakably correct, even if it's not quite so obviously satisfying as the endings that the great bulk of cookie-cutter horror films tend to provide.

I can do nothing but to repeat myself: this is what it looks like when a genius takes you by the hand and leads you into Wonderland. Sam Raimi's aesthetic, outside of his deft but somewhat "safe" superhero pictures, is an acquired taste, maybe. So go out and acquire it, already. The raw feeling of playfulness on display here, playfulness in the most literal sense that you start to think that the director is just fooling about and executing a grand shell game on characterisation and realism in the horror genre, where was this unwieldy sentence headed? Right, yes, the playfulness of Drag Me to Hell, which in the scariest moments or the goofiest - and as I said, they are very often the same - leaves it as one of the most delightfully idiosyncratic films yet made in 2009. This one isn't just for people who love ghost stories, or horror, but for all of us who love to watch cinema bubble and boil and pop in weird, marvelous ways.