REVIEW – Drag Me To Hell (2009)
Drag Me To Hell marks Sam Raimi’s return to the world of Horror from the sunny shores of Summer Blockbuster island. As with his three Evil Dead films, Drag Me To Hell straddles the gap between Horror and Comedy by combining elements of slapstick knockabout humour with the major keys, creeping camera-work and build and release mechanics of the Horror genre. However, for a film that seeks to trade so heavily upon its big visual set-pieces, it is not only poorly written but grossly over-written too.
Christine (Alison Lohman) is a former rural beauty queen who has moved to the big city. Insecure about herself and her status she spends her nights terrified by the thought of her rich boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) not approving of her, and her days locked in a life-and-death struggle for an assistant manager’s post with a guy who just joined the company (Reggie Lee). In the hope of securing herself a promotion, she turns down an old Roma lady’s (Lorna Raver) attempt at re-mortgaging her house, resulting in her losing her home. Humiliated, Mrs. Ganush retaliates by sending a demon after the loan officer that will torment her for days before dragging her off to hell. In an attempt to save herself, Christine enlists an Asian psychic named Rham Jas (Dileep Rao) despite the protestations of her sceptical boyfriend.
What most struck me as I sat watching Drag Me To Hell is its quite overt racism. The film’s depiction of the Roma people is straight out of the darkest dreams of the Daily Mail and a tradition of racial prejudice, fear and scape-goating that stretches back at least as far as the Dark Ages. Mrs. Ganush is physically disgusting, replete with disease and foul habits. A vindictive and dishonest creature who needs little provocation before lashing out at honest white middle class people using her sinister gypsy powers. Her family are presented in a similar tone as a pack of ugly, sinister and unsympathetic people playing weird violin music in the basement of a tumbledown old house. I would have some sympathy for the idea that the Raimi brothers – as Americans – have little awareness of the spectre of genocide that still hangs over the European treatment and depiction of gypsiesexcept that, even accepting that this kind of gross ignorance is acceptable, it does not explain why the same kind of racially-inspired, type-based characterisation also applies to other non-White characters.
Drag Me To Hell also features the ‘seer’ Rham Jas and the Latina medium Shaun San Dena (Adriana Barraza). Both of these characters are non-white. Both of these characters are ‘closer to the Earth’ and possessed of magical powers that they to help the white protagonist. Both characters are, quite clearly, variations on the theme of the Magical Negro; a racist throwback to the idea that non-White people are somehow Other and different to White people. Other Magical Negroes include, most famously, Uncle Remus from Song of the South (1946) but also much of the recent work of Morgan Freeman.
Throw these two powerful stereotypes together and what you have is a film that is full of lazy writing. Writing that draws its power not from its poetic quality or its inspired structure but from its willingness to tap into centuries old negative stereotypes. Stereotypes that continue to circulate precisely because of the primal power they still have over the Western mind. To draw upon these types of stereotypes is to perpetuate and legitimise them and that is not only profoundly ignorant, it is also utterly irresponsible.
Nor are the problems with Drag Me To Hell’s writing limited to its use of broad racial stereotypes.
As might be expected from the director of the Evil Dead films, Drag Me To Hell is a hyper-kinetic blend of gross-out humour, surreal slapstick and Horror that aims to terrify, disgust and amuse in equal proportions. However, while the film is undeniably funny (in particular a scene involving embalming fluid and another featuring a foul-mouthed goat) it is not in the least bit scary due to its horribly baggy mis-en-scene.
Drag Me To Hell is saddled with not one but two largely superfluous sub-plots. One involving Christine’s attempts to deal with a co-worker who is permanently trying to one-up her in his efforts to get promoted and another involving Christine’s fear that her bucolic upbringing might prevent her boyfriend’s parents from accepting her. As in most Horror films, these sub-plots are included not because they are of any inherent interest, but because they grant the director some breathing space. By occasionally grounding the film in the real world, these types of sub-plot can serve to release pent up tension and maximise the impact of the big set-pieces by lowering the audience’s guard. A text-book example to this approach to Horror is Myrick and Sanchez’s The Blair Witch Project (1999), where the bickering of the group during daylight hours served to amplify the terrifying goings on after dark.
However, instead of treating these plot-lines as simples means to an end, Raimi bizarrely keeps returning to them. As though he expects us to care about whether Christine lands the promotion or wins over Clay’s parents. Even worse, the script also contains the vestigial remains of two further plot lines; one about gaining retribution by admitting guilt and another about faith and trust in relationships. These vestigial plot-lines never made it into the final version of the film even if their pay-off moments do. So we have Christine earnestly admitting that she could have extended Mrs. Ganush’s mortgage and Clay earnestly agreeing to spend $10,000 on psychics because he ‘believes’ in Christine. All of these extra scenes add up and result in a film which, at 99 minutes long, feels horrifically baggy and self-indulgent.
Because Drag Me To Hell is over-written, its dialogue scenes draw too much tension away from the main plot-line. Instead of cleansing the audience’s palates like Ozu’s street scenes, they suck the energy out of the film and leave you bored and waiting for the next exciting bit. This means that when the exciting scenes happen, they have to work a lot harder to illicit a response, a task that is not helped by Raimi’s increasing reliance upon CGI. Where Drag Me To Hell works best it is when it is suggesting evil rather than displaying it. The most effective scenes are the earliest ones where the demon appears as a creature of wind and shade, clanging pots and groaning gates. This is not particularly original film-making but it is effective. Indeed, Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) remains an effective chiller despite being over 45 years old because it manages to suggest so much and so effectively. By contrast, Raimi feels obliged to show us everything and by the end of the film we are subjected to CGI goats and ghosts and the results are silly and not in the least bit frightening or interesting.
In many ways, Drag Me To Hell is an object lesson in what happens if you give Horror directors too much money and too much control. Because the film was produced by Raimi’s own production company, chances are that he got very close to complete creative control and the result is a film that is self-indulgent, lazy and completely ineffective. Worse still, the film is not really about anything. With the redemption sub-plot dumped the curse is framed almost as a rather unfortunate legal problem to bee overcome (a fact which is mirrored in the film’s fondness for credit-industry technobabble), while the remaining plot lines bear little insight either into the human condition or the times in which we are living.