I want you to know that Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell is the best horror movie that has been made since the year 2000.
Yes, there are technically better movies. There is the racial interrogation that is Get Out. There is the political feminist investigation that is Under The Shadow. There are the delightfully spooky “the” movies, films like The Invitation, The Descent, The Purge, and – of course – The Babadook. There are new classics and new franchises – Paranormal Activity, 28 Weeks Later, Final Destination, The Conjuring – that have defined the decades. There are the art films, the It Follows and You’re Next and House Of The Devil and The Inkeepers type films. There are so many good horror movies! But there is one that is just good at horror. It is indulgent and silly and scary, the type of movie that should be bad but isn’t. That is the best horror movie that has been made since the year 2000 – and that is what Drag Me To Hell is.
The 2009 movie was a super success and is the last true auteur something by modern horror master Sam Raimi, a singular piece of work that he wrote and directed. The movie is about a young woman named Christine (played by the then-in Alison Lohman) who works at a bank and, after denying a strange loan seeker (the iconic Lorna Raver as Mrs. Ganush), realizes she has been cursed – and that the problem of denying a loan means more than a streak of bad luck. What befalls Christine is a series of fantastic horrors that are as absurd as they are amazing: this is a film engorged with terrible pleasure – and with such a surprising ongoing relevance.
This is because of the horrors it holds. The film is situated as a neo-witch tale, where one woman uses intersectional understandings of curses to understand her own curse. Christine consults Eastern practices by way of an Indian spiritual practitioner, she seeks the help of a local Mexican traditionalist to unlock this anti-gift, and even goes to the source, to the unnamed, perhaps Baltic gypsy family where her problems all came from. The curse entails scares and scares and scares, all leading up to the potential for her to be quite literally dragged to hell. Her curse takes the form of shadow creatures crashing around her and even Mrs. Ganush appearing in different forms, scratching at her or vomiting in her mouth on multiple occasions. These scares are all deployed through lovable technology that is both practical and technological, as best exemplified by these repeated vomit scenes composed of digital streams from very real prosthetic bodies (or vice versa, as you see below). There is an itchy timelessness to this execution that makes this film unique and somewhat intimate because you can see the techniques at play while also wondering what exactly is going on.
This only heightens the horror because, as fans know, Christine still fails in the end. This, truly, is the mark of a magnificent horror movie: the horror wins. No happy ending is found! There is no end to tragedy! Horror is hyperbole! This Sam Raimi knows quite well. As Christine feels that she has escaped, she has not – and never will. She goes to hell, as “she should.” It’s a satisfying and shocking ending that, really, is unrivaled in this high time for horror that we’re in, where films always end with a linger or a decisive “happiness.”
As the film has aged, Drag Me To Hell‘s greatness is exacerbated by a few things, namely the film’s quietly political tendencies, the use of comedy, and its standaloneness. When the film came out in 2009, America’s financial breakdown was still unfolding. College students were entering job markets that amounted to nothing, the housing market was collapsing, and banks and bankers were looking away, pretending that this was all our fault instead of theirs. This is the situation Christine ends up in: a bank employee who helps people get loans – or not. When her boss pressures her to be firmer with denying loan seekers in order to get a promotion, she does what she’s told. She’s a millennial! She wants to get ahead, even within a job that she hates. Thus, she cracks down on loan seekers. Unfortunately, the person seeking a loan happened to have a curse hidden under a handkerchief – and Christine certain fell under it. For a film to assess this national situation and poke at it from within the time frame it is happening? That is genius, particularly given that the movie likely got going in its fullest capacity in 2007. The thoughts this film thinks are easily ahead of its time.
To that, Christine’s problems don’t end at finances as a contemporary watching reveals an error in whiteness that may have also been missed in viewings when the movie first came out. Christine is a midwestern good girl, a white woman doing her best to be the best her in her little white world. But when times get tough? She can’t solve her own problems and turns to those who actually know a thing or two about living a life that is less than ideal: people of color. The Indian man, the Mexican woman, the Baltic family: all these others she grovels to for help, saying she will “listen” to them only to do things how she thinks they should be done, in her own terrible know-it-all way that causes everything to explode in her face. She drags herself to hell. Christine, in no small way, is a metaphor for the great national problem we like to call white women.
To exacerbate these political problems and real life horrors are the slapstick comedic elements, moments of lightness in heaviness that make the thrills and scares even more over-the-top. There is a pupetted goat-person, the aforementioned vomiting gypsy, a moment where gums fall on a face in a fight, the killing of a kitten, and the many ironies that I have defeated the problem! that are eventually toppled by reality biting back. Lohman’s acting balances something between extreme earnestness and high camp, that she is in a sort of vaudevillian morality player exposing the dangers of being a blind do-gooder. Paired with her history as a poor, fat kid, another irony is presented via juxtaposition with the parents of her boyfriend (Justin Long), where many an LOL moment rooted in class tensions emerge.
Lastly, this movie is singular. Unrivaled, even, for a 2009 film. It was the last horror film to master Sam Raimi’s name, where he wrote and directed and produced the film. It featured then-It Girl Lohman and Apple Dude Justin Long. It did not become a franchise!! It was also not an indie film. It starred Lorna Raver in remarkable witch-adjacent drag. It was only rated PG-13. It featured a very fucked up ending. It was practically gore-less. It also featured Octavia Spencer as an extra, an actor so striking that you can very obviously point her out in backgrounds, just three years shy of winning an Academy Award.
Octavia Spencer plays one of the anonymous bank employees in DRAG ME TO HELL. I don’t think she ever even has a line. Most of the time she’s not even in focus. pic.twitter.com/H1i3cD9yUW
— Brian Collins (NOT RELATED TO SUSAN) (@BrianWCollins) February 20, 2018
These are all strange qualities for a horror film because it was created by and for a now-lost time when these impossible feats were possible. If this film were made today? There would be a section of Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights dedicated to the film. There would be a prequel movie regarding Mrs. Ganush’s origin. There would be a sequel that follows another cursed person. A television adaptation would be coming soon. We would have had the film itself dragged to hell, delegitimized and squeezed out for dollars. Capitalism would have engorged something so good that we would have forgotten the gift we were given. Life would have been squeezed dry.
But that did not happen. The film remains a special capturing of a moment, a horror piece locked in the amber of pre-collapse America. Nearly a decade later, we can recognize this great film for more than what it was but what it is: perhaps the best horror film made since the year 2000, a film that fires shots in so many directions, that is still revealing itself to audiences. Drag Me To Hell is singular. It is special, it is unique, and it will never be made again.
If only we had more movies like this – and perhaps we’ll be getting more soon.