It’s 2009 and a punter is in the mood for a horror film. They check the cinema timetable: Drag Me To Hell, directed by Sam Raimi. The Spider-Man guy? Odd choice for a horror film, but it has a cool poster and the trailer looks scary so why not. Now they’re sitting in the theatre. The film is about halfway done but they’re not sure how they feel about it. Some parts are scary, like when the old woman attacks the girl’s car, but then there are other parts that are just…strange. I mean, why exactly did the old woman shove her arm all the way into the girl’s mouth? And why did the girl drop an anvil on the old woman’s head, making her eyes pop out like she was a Looney Tunes character? Was it supposed to funny or something?
Comedy-horror has always been a niche genre and it’s not hard to see why. Audiences have become accustomed to viewing the two as opposing narrative forces, representing totally different ends of the emotional spectrum. But this has never been the case. Comedy and horror operate under the same storytelling principles, right down to the three-step process of set-up, tension and pay-off. Not only can comedy and horror co-exist but they can complement each other and even blend together to the extent that the distinctions between them become meaningless. That is what makes a comedy-horror.
After having arguably invented the genre in the 80s with his Evil Dead series, diehard Raimi fans were excited to hear that he was returning to his roots. There was concern too. Raimi had achieved household-name status with his Spider-Man trilogy. Would huge mainstream success dull his taste for the grotesquely outrageous? While Drag Me To Hell certainly has higher production values and polish than his pre-blockbuster days, he has lost none of his goofy, grisly charm. The film is his triumphant return to a genre that is clearly very close to his heart.
The story follows Christine (Alison Lohman), a bank loan officer gunning for a big managerial promotion. It looks like a sure thing until a brash new employee arrives and steals her thunder. When her boss starts to worry she’s too nice for the job, Christine is determined to prove that she can make tough decisions. She soon gets her chance when an old gypsy woman comes in, begging for another extension on her mortgage. Christine plays hardball, flatly refusing to help her.
Spurning a gypsy is never a good move (especially in the first act) and the woman places a deadly curse on Christine. The next day, Christine starts having hallucinations about being pursued by a malevolent spirit. She confides in her sceptical boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) and the two visit a fortune teller who takes American Express. He tells Christine the nature of her curse; she will tormented by the Lamia, a powerful demon, for three days. At the end of those three days, she’ll be Dragged To Hell.
The concept of Hell is so ubiquitous that we seldom stop to consider how truly awful it would be. The prospect of suffering intense pain for all eternity is too unbearable and unquantifiable for us to imagine outside of the abstract. That’s why it’s genuinely unsettling when the movie treats hell not as a concept but a certainty, as inevitable as death. It makes for some damn good dramatic stakes anyway, as the three days march on relentlessly and Christine is stalked by a growing sense of dread.
But don’t get the wrong idea; this movie is a ton of fun. Silly, charming and self-aware, Raimi’s only goal is to entertain you. And apart from being one of the best comedy-horrors of the 00s, Drag Me To Hell also showed that deep down inside this acclaimed Hollywood director, whose Spider-Man trilogy sparked a worldwide phenomenon and grossed billions of dollars, is a guy who just wants to see an old gypsy woman get hit by an anvil so that her eyeballs pop out of her head.