The first is a supernatural horror film. The second is a horror story without any trace of the supernatural. Otherwise, they are remarkably similar. Both apply the horror film’s fundamental “return of the repressed” formula to the current economic malaise. Both films feature pretty but not-so-sympathetic heroines whose independence as career women is visually defined in part by the cars they drive. The principal threat to the heroines in both films is either a homeless person or a person about to be homeless.
Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi, 2009) stars Alison Lohman (Big Fish) as Christine, a loan officer at a bank being considered for a promotion to assistant manager. Her boss (David Paymer) advises her that if she really wants that promotion, she needs to show that she can make “tough decisions.”
Christine’s first tough decision is to deny an elderly gypsy woman a third extension on her mortgage, effectively rendering the woman homeless. In order to ensure our identification with Christine and her decision, director Raimi makes the old woman as disgusting as possible, with a clouded-over eye, withered brown fingernails, and jagged dentures that are practically dripping with bodily fluids. Not to mention a bad attitude.
That night, in a parking garage, Christine is attacked by the old woman (above, surprisingly strong) in her car. Christine manages to fend her off, but not before the old woman steals an item of Christine’s clothing, a button, and places a curse on it, “Soon, it will be you who comes begging to me.”
At this point, the story turns into a gorier more blackly comic retread of Jacques Tourneur’s classic Curse of the Demon (1958) with the protagonist trying to get rid of the cursed item (in Demon, it was a piece of parchment) before being carried off to his or her doom by a Creature From Hell.
Throughout all of this, Raimi attempts to walk a fine line between horror and comedy, and between making his protagonist sympathetic enough to care about, but not so sympathetic that the audience can’t relish the various punishments inflicted upon her. Raimi’s Evil Dead II, his best horror film to date, was simultaneously scary and funny, but in Drag Me to Hell, the director’s comic attitude undercuts the horror (see, for example, the sudden appearance of a staring eyeball in a slice of cake), and the end result is neither funny enough nor frightening enough. Worse, there is a pronounced misogynistic streak that runs through the entire film, not only in the characterization of the old woman – who resembles the “swallow your soul” ghoul-woman from Evil Dead II – but also in the characterization of Christine herself. What is this hate-love thing going on here and in the Spiderman series between Raimi and actresses who look like (or are) Kirsten Dunst?
The film is at its best when it places the audience in uncomfortable moral positions. (See Raimi’s earlier A Simple Plan.) Would you be willing to murder a cute little kitten, if by so doing you could save yourself from being torn apart by a hideous demon? When Christine hesitates to pass on the cursed button to an unscrupulous rival for the position she covets, we actually start to like her and hope that she might be saved.
However, on the way home from a long night of partying, Brandi’s car collides with a homeless man (Stephen Rea) who gets stuck headfirst in her windshield – halfway in, halfway out – apparently bleeding to death. Like Raimi’s film, Stuck places the audience in situations where difficult moral choices have to be made and asks, in effect, if you would behave any better. Brandi chooses to drive her car home and lock man-and-car inside her garage until things sort themselves out. She comes to believe that it’s all his fault. When the man in the windshield takes longer to die than she expected, she invites her thug of a boyfriend over to expedite matters.
Where Stuck differs most significantly from Drag Me to Hell (aside from the absence of the supernatural) is in its attitude toward the economically unfortunate. While Drag Me to Hell has some sensitivity to class issues (Christine is looked down upon by her boyfriend’s well-off parents because she grew up on a farm), it compromises any critique of the heroine – or the dysfunctional system that employs her – by making the old gypsy woman a one-dimensional monster. In Stuck, on the other hand, Tom Bardo (Rea), the man in the windshield, becomes just as much a protagonist as Brandi. (In Tibetan Buddhism, the word “Bardo” means an “in-between” or “transitional” state, an appropriate name for a character who has just lost his job and his home, and is halfway between life and death, halfway in and halfway out of the car’s windshield.)
Mena Suvari and Stephen Rea are both excellent in their roles. We root for Brandi as we root for any character on screen, no matter how immoral, who attempts to solve a problem. As Brandi and Tom become mortal enemies, and Tom grows ever more resourceful simply trying to survive, our sympathies naturally shift toward him. Unlike Raimi, director Gordon never loses control of the tone of his film. The black humor is not antagonistic toward the horror but is inseparable from it.
Tags:Alison LohmanDrag Me to HellhorrorJacques TourneurMena SuvariSam RaimiStephen ReaStuart GordonStuck
— C. Jerry Kutner
C. Jerry Kutner is a frequent contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal. Visit his website at home.earthlink.net/~cjk5.
Drag Me To Hell
by Scott Mendelson
Drag Me to Hell is a throwback to a time, in the mid-1980s, when horror films were fun first and scary second. Before the genre became a battle of the franchise bogeymen, before the advent of English adaptations of Asian fright fests, before the onslaught of gorier, more drawn out violence (itself a theoretical callback to the 1970s), there was a time when horror films just plain fun. This new Sam Raimi picture is not terribly frightening, as the nature of its premise all but states that the would-be scares are without consequence. But it does have energy, an eagerness to entertain, and an old-school 80s fun house spirit, and it has all three in spades. As a bonus, it's the rare theatrical horror movie that isn't a remake or a random 'dumb kids get lost in the wood and get butchered' narrative. It is a real movie, with a real plot and plausible characters at its core. Drag Me To Hell may not be shiver-in-the-dark scary, but it is a trashy B-movie blast.
A token amount of plot - Christine Brown (Alison Lohman, in a somewhat overly on-point performance) is a young loan officer pining for a promotion to assistant manager. Wanting to avoid appearing like a push over in front of her boss (David Paymer), she declines an elderly gypsy's request for a mortgage extension, dooming the woman to foreclosure. As a result, the old woman (Lorna Raver) lashes out in anger, cursing Christine and condemning her to an eternity in hell, but only after three days of psychological and emotional torture (you know, for fun).
The majority of the narrative concerns Christine's attempts to rid herself of this damnation, all while trying to appear normal to her boss, her boyfriend (Justin Long), and her boyfriend's theoretically disapproving family. Needless to say, the gypsy curse gives director Sam Raimi an excuse to throw whatever whacked-out effects work he wants at the screen, all in the name of startling the audience into nervous laughter. Since the premise dictates a certain lack of onscreen physical violence or gore, Raimi uses his PG-13 instead to show all kinds of old-fashioned gross-outs, jolting 'gotcha' moments, and plenty of ick. It works more often than not, but the underlying premise dictates that nothing will actually happen to our heroine until the three days expire (assuming she can't break the curse, of course). Save for the brutal and terrifying prologue, all of the subsequent scares will simply be false alarms or intentional mind games on the part of the various evil forces at work. It's popcorn-flying fun, but it's not scary.
Whether this is an issue is up to you, but the picture works on other levels to compensate for the lack of bone-chilling terror. The characters are relatively fleshed out, which is a refreshing change of pace in this genre. Justin Long is quite good here, giving Clay Dalton a strong but plausible protective streak. Even Clay's would-be villainous mother is given a scene of empathetic humanity. Rham Jas is terrifically engaging as a believing psychic, especially as this is his feature-film debut (next up, James Cameron's Avatar). And while David Paymer flirts with cliche as the snarky bank manager, it is awfully nice to see this underutilized actor in a high profile movie again.
While this is being hailed as director Sam Raimi's return to the horror genre that made him a legend, this is a very different kind of picture than the Evil Dead series. While the visuals and the camera work will remind even the casual fan of Bruce Campbell's various horror pratfalls, this is, if anything, an attempt to put those kind of cinematic tricks into a movie with an actual plot and actual characters. By all objective standards, this is a genuinely better film than any of the Evil Dead pictures. Amazingly, Bruce Campbell does not make a cameo in this one, although that 1973 Oldsmobile Delta Royale does. It is ironic that Sam Raimi, whose The Evil Dead was one of the pioneering 'dumb kids go into the woods and get slaughtered' pictures, would be the one to attempt to break the horror genre free of that current rut.
The film will not leave you feeling icky or ill-at-ease. It's not that kind of horror film. The film works splendidly as a comic homage to 1980s supernatural gross-out pictures, the kind that you barely remember watching when your parents weren't looking (think The Gate). Despite the lush 2.35:1 wide screen cinematography, I actually think that the picture would work best when viewed on a basic cable station at 2am in the morning. Drag Me to Hell is certainly a jump out of your seat good time as a theatrical experience, but I'd only imagine that it would have scared the hell out of me if I had seen it when I was nine, on Channel 43 at 1am in the morning as I struggled to stay awake to see what happened next.
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