Sam Raimi, USA, 2009
Anecdotal evidence suggests that Raimi’s latest is a real crowd pleaser. Friends tell me that they saw it in a packed cinema where everyone jumped and screamed at the right places; I have a friend who got whiplash watching it and had to take time off work. They should quote her on that for the poster. I didn’t see it in a crowded theatre… just a few of us. I wonder how much of a difference that might make? There is no doubting there is plenty meant to make you leap out of your skin. Every five minutes there is a slightly quiet moment and them BAM!! A blast of noise. It is not so much fear you are reacting too as much as an excess of volume. In other films, this just seems like a cheap BOO!! tactic. Luckily, Raimi has more to offer. Accolades have escalated for "Drag Me To Hell" to the level that it's being called the best horror film of the decade, etc. Which is ridiculous and seems based upon Rami delivering exactly what popcorn horror fans are expected to enjoy, and no more. Which he does. Some say that horror should always have, or is improved with the humour Raimi delivers. No. It is something like excessive horror for those who don't mind the violence of cartoons, but probably don't go much for the grimier, darker stuff.
It's mostly fun, but when watching and becoming annoyed at glaring continuity and logic issues, I started to see something else. These notes are based upon one viewing, so conclusions may change later on, and be warned that there are a whole bunch of spoilers.
"Drag Me To Hell" is slapstick horror, written by brothers Sam and Ivan Raimi, and it is often brilliantly presented, pushing the boundaries of its rating. As critic Mark Kermode has noted, that something like this is a PG13 shows how much things have changed, because with all its exploding eyeballs, etc., it surely would have been thrown in with the Video Nasties pile back at the height of that moral panic. It has Raimi’s aversion at old ladies and then some, more articulate in its revulsion than “Evil Dead” in its use of false teeth, dodgy eyes and witchy crones. It is also freewheeling with its continuity and details. No one expects completely consistent details in a horror romp, but: after it’s scene-stealing performance, where does the goat go in the séance? When Chrsitine Brown spurts a geyser of blood from her nose at everyone at work, no one particularly seems freaked out and it certainly doesn’t cause any consequences in people’s reactions to her. Upon disturbing the corpse at the wake, one minute it is spewing gunk over her, the next she is totally fresh-faced. Like a good old Tom and Jerry fight, she receives barely a blemish from all the battering she takes. Is this just the genre’s typical shrug at physical realism and constancy? I suspect more is at play.
Alison Lohman is Christine Brown is a farm girl apparently desperate to rise above her humble origins, the death of her father and her mother’s alcoholism. This one-time “fat girl” has slimmed down and is in line for promotion at work, up against the sliminess of a colleague rival. She has slimmed, worked her way up the chain of promotion at work, got herself a great boyfriend in Clay Dalton (Justin Long), she’s worked at a puppy shelter and she doesn’t eat meat. There is a lot tied into food. The curse comes from the Gypsy (a totally game Lorna Raver) who eats desk candy disgustingly, not to mention steals it. Many of the demonic attacks are foreshadowed or responded to by eating. The dinner with Clay's parents in particular is loaded with eyeballs in farm cake and devilish banging on doors. There is plenty of vomit going around; a fly penetrates her lips into her stomach; early on, the pre-curse gypsy gets a stapler down her throat and simply spits it back up. And the Lamia demon shoves its fist right down Lohan’s throat. The allusions to bulimic behaviour and repugnance, guilt and shame regarding food, eating and the mouth are everywhere. Once she thinks she is out of the curse, Christine immediately, impulsively buys a new minty green coat and tosses the old (despite having sold all her stuff earlier). All the clues of self-image problems are there, although we thankfully do not get a barrage of symbolic mirrors. If it wasn’t for the prologue showing Hell claiming a victim, and if it wasn’t for the séance which seems to possess a lot of action and consequence to validate the existence of a supernatural grudge, one might think the psychics onto a scam and the rest all in Christine's mind. Is her boyfriend’s mother right? Is Christine crazy?
Nihilistic Kid and Angry Black Woman take “Drag Me To Hell” to task for racism. The representation of the Gypsy community is not enlightened, but attacking horror films for casual and offensive caricatures is like reprimanding metal music for being too loud or Mariah Carey for singing too many notes: it comes with the territory and it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. That is not a justification of stereotypes and broad caricature, but in the better horrors something else is usually happening.
First context: this is a B-horror and the Gypsy Curse inclusion is surely meant to hark to the era when Gypsies were always cursing one Lon Chaney or the other - it is homage. It also comes from that unenlightened, prejudiced rendering of Gypsies (e.g., people originating from Roma) as seemingly a lifestyle choice, like occultism, rather than an ethnicity, and a persecuted one at that. But, again, I suspect there is more going on here.
Second context: the perspective of the narrative. Once the Gypsy woman has turned up, grossed us out and cursed Lohman with a vengeful Lamia devil to drag her to Hades, Lohman goes into the basement car park and sees a beat up, puke yellow car. The moment slows and she stares at it increasingly suspicious and nervous. The aesthetic becomes dreamy and tense. From the car floats the handkerchief of the Gypsy, and suddenly the Gypsy is right there in the car and an almighty cartoon fight ensues. But wait… back up. How does Lohman know that that decidedly inferior vehicle is the Gypsy’s car? It looks similar. And the Gypsy knows how to break into cars too? Isn’t this absurd fight before she dispenses with a curse and manifests herself as a Lamia? Perhaps we cannot exactly trust what we are seeing, as proposed before; and then perhaps what we are actually dealing with is not only Lohman’s self-disgust and eating disorder manifest, but also evidence of her racism. That is: the exaggerated disgust and stereotyping is Lohman’s perspective, through which the film is filtered. And so it follows that this is the Gypsy’s car and it is later seen when Lohman tries to visit the old crone at her house to get the curse lifted, but instead stumbles into her wake. Lohman is invited into the house, not knowing the wake is in progress, and the corridor she tentatively moves along is moreorless silent and then - bam! she is in the middle of a noisy wake … and gets embalming fluid or whatever vomited over her, except there is no evidence of that at the end of the scene. But we have no reason to believe that the Gypsy lady ever owned a car, outside of Lohman’s decidedly dubious perspective. Or just because the film says, "Sure that's her car". Therefore, the authenticity of the wake scene is also in doubt.
So come the ending, when all seems to be well and sunny and she has the promotion, the dastardly co-worker is exposed as conniving, her boyfriend is waiting for her, Lohman buys a new coat… she practically skips. It is not quite Peter Parker going “Saturday Night Fever” in “Spiderman 3”, but it is near the same dancefloor. And then…. All those consistent uses of food, eating and mouth images and anxieties. All those apparently dodgy moments of continuity. Is this one of those “Fight Club”, “The Others” tricks, with a relatively consistent parallel story going on, or simply the result of flippant horror making? It’s never spelt out, but: she trashed her own room; that nosebleed was not an actual geyser, etc. And even at the end, she imagines her accidental fall as the result of the hex of barely repressed fear of failure, fate and herself. Is it that half the craziness never actually happens in the séance - again, note there is a lot of blood that suddenly vanishes; that the medium dies during the course of the con and so the earnest Indian medium simply invents another convenient story of a “cure” (very much in the “Ringu” vein) to let Lohman off the hook? Is it simply that the prologue is a representation of what Lohman comes to imagine the back-story, as told by the con-artist medium, and just that we get to see it before the action truly starts? And is it that her barely repressed, troubled mind drives her into all kinds of hokum, even to imagining herself being dragged away?