There’s this cliché in literature and film where a character says something along the lines of “I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry.” It’s pretty trite, sloppy writing, and I roll my eyes whenever I hear it, but like all clichés, there’s a spark of truth which underlies the statement. There is a very, very thin line separating the comic from the tragic, the humorous from the horrifying, and it can be challenging for a filmmaker to stay on just one side of that line. This is the reason that so many B-horror movies can be watched as comedies (let’s not kid ourselves, so can a lot of big-budget horror movies). This is why comedies that try to push comic boundaries so often devolve into horrifying cringe-fests.
Often, the movies that try the hardest to walk the horror/comedy line end up with a little bit of each. However, there’s one thing that unites all of these films, and that’s the fact that as a viewer, you are acutely aware that, at any given time, the film wants to be either horror wants to be comedy. Even in films like Shaun of the Dead (a strong contender for greatest horror/comedy of all time), it’s quite apparent in which scenes you’re supposed to be laughing and in which scenes you’re supposed to be scared.
This is why I’m such a fan of Sam Raimi, the director of Evil Dead trilogy, the Tobey McGuire-era Spider-Man trilogy, and producer of the I-hate-to-even-bring-it-up 2020 reboot of The Grudge. The thing that makes Sam Raimi so unique in the world of the horror/comedy genre is that he never lets you know if what you’re watching is supposed to be funny or supposed to be terrifying. He walks the horror/comedy line with such grace that you literally do not know whether to laugh or cry, and there’s really nothing cliché about it. Raimi’s 2009 film Drag Me to Hell is the perfect example of his elegant genre balancing act.
In Drag Me to Hell, Alison Lohman stars as Christine Brown, a bank loan officer who denies an elderly Eastern European woman an extension on her mortgage. The woman gets upset and curses Christine, giving her three days to find a way to get rid of the curse before her soul is brought to hell for a torturous eternity. Her boyfriend Stu (Justin Long), is also along for the ride. That’s really all you need to know, plot-wise.
The comic magic of the film comes mostly from gross-out humor. (Now is probably the time to acknowledge that for many, “gross-out” and “humor” are utterly incompatible terms; I am not one of those people). But that’s precisely where the tension arises; because gross-out isn’t supposed to be funny. Raimi plays with the blood, saliva, and in one glorious scene, embalming fluids, in such a way that when Christine is having her mouth puked into for the third time, you can’t help but wonder why it gets funnier with each iteration. Of course, my simply explaining it can do no justice to the film itself. Watch it and see. You’ll soon be laughing despite yourself.
It needs to be said that Drag Me to Hell is not a so-bad-it’s-good sort of experience. Overall, the movie punches just a bit above average, in my opinion; and it’s still nowhere close to Raimi’s Evil Dead II (contender #2 for greatest horror/comedy). But while Evil Dead II is still mostly focused on flipping the switch between comedy and horror, Drag Me to Hell blends the two in such a way that before you even know what your own reaction to a scene is, the film’s already moved on.
I will admit that I’m talking up Drag Me to Hell as if it’s some hyper-nuanced piece of genre-defying art. It’s not. There is a scene where a woman has an actual anvil dropped on her head, causing her eyeballs to fly out of their sockets and into Christine’s mouth. There’s effectively a reenactment of the Evil Dead II blood geyser scene, only it’s shooting from Christine’s mouth and nose instead of from a wall. Again, not exactly high-art.
But what makes these scenes great is that at no point does Raimi let the characters acknowledge the increasing absurdity. In fact, they react as any sane person in real life would: with abject horror. That’s what sets Drag Me to Hell apart. There’s no Bruce Campbell, no one-liners, no hamming it up. Raimi lets the actors bring the drama, and the special effects bring the comedy. He can let his characters be regular, unfunny people while inflicting Looney Tunes levels of punishment upon them.
That’s why Raimi is the only director who can drop an anvil on someone’s head and get away with it. If the same gag played out in one of the Scary Movies, it would inevitably be followed up with Anna Faris looking exaggeratedly into the camera like a character who knows she’s in a movie. Christine doesn’t. She only knows that a lady’s high-velocity eyeball was just propelled into her mouth.
So how are we, as an audience, supposed to react when we see relatable, likable, and ultimately redeemable characters get subjected to an endless stream of torment? I’d say that your guess is as good as mine, but there are really only two choices: Laugh. Or cry.