A little over halfway into Drag Me to Hell, the protagonist is trapped in a tool shed, choking on a throatful of demon. Christine, the sympathetic but nonetheless damned loan officer, is pinned against a bar, about to asphyxiate on this old (undead) woman’s arm. Luckily, Christine’s got an ice skate in her hand… and there’s an anvil above her supernatural adversary’s head. You can practically hear Daffy Duck groveling, “Thisth meansth war.”
So goes the logic of Sam Raimi’s last (and as of this writing, final) horror film, which was summoned to Netflix this month for a much-deserved cultural revival. Why is there an anvil hanging in a tool shed? Well, because Christine is going to cut it down, of course. And when the anvil drops, it isn’t going to just topple the old lady. It’s going to squash her, and jettison a pair of eyeballs (with a side of loose scalp) into Christine’s mouth. Yummy.
Directed by Raimi in full Bugs Bunny mode, Drag Me to Hell is an antidote to the self-seriousness of many modern horror movies, which can ignore how silly ghouls and goblins are in favor of labored metaphors about trauma. Luckily, 2023 movies like M3GAN and The Blackening have shown us that new horror can have fun too, but the cathartically vulgar violence and cursing goats of Drag Me to Hell feel like a special Acme brand of horror comedy that simply doesn’t exist anymore. It’s careless. It’s fun. It’s straight-up Looney Tunes.
Raimi and his collaborators first conjured up their version of this idiotic — yet painstakingly choreographed — camp horror back in the ’80s with the landmark Evil Dead trilogy. Those movies are not so much comedy-horror films as they are scatalogical fireworks displays with a cartoon quality to the jokes that draw clear and explicit influences from the Three Stooges.
But as Raimi grew more popular and transformed as a director, mostly leaving the horror genre behind, the genre shifted away from him, too. By the time he was done with his triumphantly profitable Spider-Man trilogy, it was the 2000s, and films like The Blair Witch Project and Saw had ushered in an entirely different kind of horror landscape that contained about as much slapstick as Porky Pig has pants.
Drag Me to Hell debuted in 2009 to surprisingly middling initial box-office returns (though it made a lot of money in the long run). While it is very much a horror movie — and a scary one at that — it punctuates its most disturbing scares (like the old lady sticking her arm down Christine’s throat) with the silliest bits (an anvil exploding the demon’s head). It’s through this legitimately jolting contrast that Raimi is able to create such an off-kilter and unpredictable tone, never giving us the benefit of knowing whether we’re safe in joke territory or if we’re about to witness something truly, truly horrific.
Even the movie’s setup feels like one of those Elmer Fudd episodes where we know very well he’s doomed from the start… but somehow, we’re still surprised when he ends up with a pie in the face. Drag Me to Hell goes like this: Christine refuses to extend a loan for a very desperate old lady at the bank. The lady, Mrs. Ganush, places a curse on her. The curse dictates Christine will be dragged to hell in three days. Christine does everything she can to absolve herself of the curse, such as chopping up and burying her cat (not funny) and conspiring with a restless spirit who plays the trombone (very funny).
There are glimpses of the Looney Tunes brutality Raimi brought to horror in comedy series like The Eric Andre Show and I Think You Should Leave… but I can’t think of a single recent horror movie that’s willing to go Merrie Melodies gonzo. Barbarian (coincidentally also starring Justin Long) gets close, but there’s still a veneer of atmospheric dread that keeps it from fully being like the proudly unpolished, uncool films of Raimi. And that’s a little tragic. Because the best horror films are visceral experiences. And Drag Me to Hell is a glorious barrage of the senses, a full-on onslaught of eyeballs popping out of cakes and bugs flying into (and out of) nostrils.
Raimi recently said in a Reddit AMA that he’s open to a sequel to Drag Me to Hell, should the right script come around. For now, at least I can watch Mrs. Ganush vomit maggots into Christine’s face on Netflix. As a wise pig once said: That’s all, folks!
Drag Me to Hell is now streaming on Netflix.