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REVIEW – Drag Me To Hell (2009)

May 31, 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.

Film Poster

Film Poster

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.

Actual Daily Mail page

Actual Daily Mail page


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.

14 Comments
  1. May 31, 2009 5:53 pm

    I second to the review loved the film a lot. Highly recommended.

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  2. June 1, 2009 10:16 am

    I had my suspicions this film was far from the great work its marketing campaign suggested (funny that). I shall give it a miss based upon this review.

    Do you care for any Sam Raimi I wonder. I’ve never understood the appeal. Comedy-Horror just seems to me as redundant as a Comedy-Drama. I guess I don’t like my genres distilled and diluted.

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  3. June 1, 2009 10:32 am

    Good question :-)

    I admire the first two Evil Dead films on a technical level and I quite like The Army of Darkness for the sheer silliness of it. I don’t love any of those films, nor do I consider any of them particularly frightening when compared to other works in the genre.

    My favourite film of Raimi’s is probably Spiderman 2. But I haven’t seen it since I saw it at the cinema and so time might well have quenched the flames of my ardor.

    I’m not sure about Comedy-Horror. To be honest, I’ve never really thought about it, which is probably a sign that I’m indifferent. When it comes to Horror I want to be terrified and haunted, not amused.

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  4. Patrick H permalink
    June 1, 2009 2:51 pm

    The Evil Dead films reminded me a lot of Creepshow – they both traded on the ghoulish Crypt Keeper-type humour and were heavily splashed with nostalgia for EC Comics style twist-in-the-tale horror. That style was ripe for a revisit in the 80s (EC having done their time in the shade) but the ironical nostalgia industry has moved on. I haven’t seen this movie, but I suspect all its midnight-movie cultural references are probably waaaay out of date – as the gypsies straight out of The Woflman seem to suggest – and of no interest to anyone but crusty old ubernerds like Raimi. All the hip modern ubernerds are making neo-slasher movies!

    Patrick H

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  5. June 1, 2009 5:14 pm

    Evil Dead was, when I first saw it at 14 or so, genuinely scary. The comedy wasn’t even apparent to me then, I found it a very frightening film with the sing-song voices and trees with the most unenticing offer ever (“join us”, “um, maybe later, ok?”).

    Evil Dead 2 is of course Evil Dead, remade with more money and more laughs, it is a comedy, which I’m still not wholly persuaded 1 was. Army of Darkness likewise is a popcorn movie, fun, you watch it, you laugh but it’s not going to stay with you Raging Bull style.

    Spiderman is a solid reinvention of the superhero movie, it works fairly well and is visually quite impressive, but again it’s a pop-culture movie, that’s what Raimi does. 2, apparently the best in part due to Molina, I haven’t seen yet.

    As for this, it does sound pretty blatantly racist, interestingly the whole “non-Whites have kewl powerz” thing still often isn’t recognised as a form of racism even though plainly it is. It’s right there with myths of Black genital size and other ways of implying non-Whites are further from the rational than Whites are.

    All that said, baggy and self-indulgent are much bigger problems. A work may be politically dodgy but yet be rewarding, if the work itself is a bit crap though you’re left with nothing to do but sit there and think about the dodgy bits.

    Richard, I see you’ve written up the rather fascinating Kyoto station, I’ll have to stop by and read that properly tomorrow.

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  6. June 1, 2009 7:32 pm

    Hi Patrick, nice to hear from you again :-)

    1) I think you’re right that the intent of the Raimis was to reference the old Hollywood depiction of gypsies in monster movies such as the Wolfman (van Hellsing did something similar).

    2) I agree that since those depictions are not as iconic as they once were, it looks as though the film is just racist whereas the intentions were more complex.

    However, is the problem not that those iconic Hollywood representations of Gypsies were racist to begin with?

    For example, I can imagine a hypothetical ghost story in which a Black character with big bulging eyes keeps running about the place when he’s afraid. That would a) be a reference to a classic Hollywood archetype that is largely unknown to modern audiences and b) be seen as racist. But is that charge of racism not valid because it is always racist to depict Black people as childish idiots?

    I think the same applies here.

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  7. June 1, 2009 7:38 pm

    Max — I think you can draw a line between the first two Evil Dead films and the rest of Raimi’s work BUT I think that a lot of people would disagree with you.

    To my mind Drag Me To Hell suggests that if Raimi did once have the capacity to make tight, no-nonsense Horror, then he’s certainly lost it now. I also think it casts a lot of doubt on those “It was the studio’s fault” explanations for why Spiderman 3 was rubbish.

    The Magical Negro is similar to the view of Black people that Hitler evidently had. He saw them as animalistic and physically superior to White people. The myth of genital size/increased sexual appetite taps into the same cultural riff.

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  8. Patrick H permalink
    June 2, 2009 8:53 am

    Hey, I’m always reading chum, there’s just not often much for me to add!

    “However, is the problem not that those iconic Hollywood representations of Gypsies were racist to begin with?”

    Absolutely. They were built on gothic predecessors which one can view as racist or overly romantic as one pleases.

    On Raimi, I think nostalgia is a hugely important part of his … thing. You can see it in other film makers of his generation – eg, John Landis, Speilberg and Lucas etc – but I don’t know if it’s a generational thing, as such. I think these guys can separated from people who are just kinda driven to get their perverse imaginations on film (Cronenberg or John Carpenter, eg).

    Raimi always seems to be looking back at the audience and winking and saying “Isn’t this goofy!” The Spider-Man films walk that line with great skill, but I think the Spider-Man myth has a very solid allegorical foundation that provides it with some heft that’s missing from the ED movies, IMO (I’ve never seen EDIII – to be honest, I’m not much of a Bruce Campbell fan).

    P

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  9. June 2, 2009 9:03 am

    Well, nice to know that you’re out there lurking :-)

    Nostalgia’s an interesting phenomenon. The post-War generation are definitely prone to it, possibly because they believe all of that press about being the ‘greatest generation’. I had assumed, given the glut of “I love the 1980s” programmes around the turn of the millennium that my generation were prone to it too but I’m not sure that that’s the case.

    Sure we go misty eyed over Bagpuss but nobody in their 30s wanders around talking about how great it was living through the 80s in the way that people of previous generations talk about the 60s or the War years.

    That post-War generation is also the generation that birthed Post-Modernism too and that’s all about looking at things a second time, and I think that Raimi is all about that second look.

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  10. Patrick H permalink
    June 2, 2009 10:20 am

    “Sure we go misty eyed over Bagpuss but nobody in their 30s wanders around talking about how great it was living through the 80s in the way that people of previous generations talk about the 60s or the War years.”

    Get chatting with a former rave party afficianado sometime!

    (Related anecdote: Last time I was in NZ, there was a moral panic about “P” a “new” form of speed that was sweeping the nation (a kind of crystal meth, I think). I got talking to a couple of old associates who had both given it a go, but who shook their heads knowledgeably “Yeah, you get a bit of a buzz but it’s not like proper speed,” they said, “Not like what we used to take.”)

    I also think there’s quite a bit of “I was on bulletin boards back before the web!” and “Manic Miner was the best computer game evah!” type of nostalgia.

    Perhaps nostalgia (as with everything) is no longer as monolithic as it was? People are nostalgic for the circumstances of their style tribe rather than a general nostalgia of the type that the War or the 60s produced.

    I think it’s a natural thing, though, part of the aging process, the myth of decline etc etc. I’m sure it’s driven by the middle aged, processing their youth to file it away – keep this, discard that, OMFG do you remember this!! The shinier elements are picked up by the younger crowd that haven’t seen it before, or who perhaps viewed these things through children’s eyes first time around.

    Sigh, blah blah blah. This is why I mostly lurk!

    P

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  11. pleasanteveningsinthedark permalink
    June 2, 2009 6:35 pm

    I agree with Patrick H. in that the filmmakers intend the gypsy stereotype to be comical. Because it’s played almost entirely for laughs- the Lamia goat spirit gets all the scary scenes and Mrs Ganush gets the goo-everywhere, comedy slice and dice ones- it in fact has the effect of mocking the racism of previous horror films such as The Wolfman. Further, Christine, white, though not middle class, is battered and punished for being white and for aspiring to be middle class. She (spoiler alert) doesn’t come out of the whole situation too well in the end. You even describe the film yourself as “surreal slapstick”- don’t you think that suggests a tongue-in-cheek attitude towards the content?

    Secondly, I don’t understand how the subplots in the movie can be viewed as baggage. I would suggest it’s a trait common to a lot of involving films to have several supporting characters and side stories. It gives the illusion of a complete cinematic world and thus convinces the viewer that what they are watching is real, drawing them into the action. The two plots you mention are Christine’s competition with her co-worker and her attempts to impress her boyfriend’s rich parents. These are hardly insignificant given the fact that she is cursed by the pissed-off Roma lady because she is trying to climb the social ladder both through her job and her choice of husband.

    Finally, I agree that there is far too much CGI in Drag Me to Hell, as there is in most mainstream American horror films of the last decade or so. (See my own blog for more on this.) However, blaming this on the arrogance of the director is strange. I think rather studios demand full use of expensive computer effects to try to draw consumers into cinemas and creative independence is sacrificed as a result. I suspect it is the business end of the industry that is crippling creative individuals and stopping them from exploring more interesting ways of using the new technology. Although, in Raimi’s case, I would point up the fact that you complain about the “CGI goat” whereas in fact we never actually see the creature in full. During the stalking and exorcism scenes, it is only shadows, noises and people apparently inhabited with its spirit that appear on the screen. This is actually pretty clever and reminiscent of the suggested horror that you refer to in The Haunting. There is also some fun, innovative use of technology when an image of the goat pops up on Christine’s mobile phone. And I love the ending where, yes, CGI comes along to drag Christine to the dark place but a train hits her at the same time. It therefore remains ambiguous whether the supernatural stuff was all in Christine’s mind, as is hinted at throughout the film, or if she really was cursed by an angry stereotype of a gypsy lady. Another thing which adds to the ironical use of the latter I would argue.

    Sorry- that was a bit of a rant. I did enjoy your article though- it’s nice to see film talked about in relation to politics and wider cultural issues. And I also have something against the Daily Mail, so certainly don’t object to your panning them!

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  12. June 2, 2009 7:28 pm

    Hi pleasanteveningsinthedark :-)

    1) I don’t think saying “but it’s supposed to be a comedy” really allows you to get out of jail on matters of racism. In fact, that interpretation annoys me more as it suggests an assumption that the audience find funny foreigner jokes amusing.

    The problem with the characterisation of both Mrs. Ganush AND Christina is that they are uneven. One minute they’re blameless, the next they’re responsible. As a result the film’s sympathies are all over the place. To me, that’s a problem with the writing and I don’t think it gets the film of the racism hook either as it’s still a mean old gypsy persecuting a white middle class chick.

    2) I’m not complaining about those kinds of subplots in principle. Merely in practice. In other films those types of sub-plots add to the action and the characters. In Drag Me To Hell they suck energy out of the main plot and add nothing. They’re also completely uninteresting in their own right.

    3) I don’t think I do blame it on the arrogance of the director. Merely upon his lack of judgment :-)

    As for the “well it’s the system”, sorry but I don’t buy it. Raimi’s responsible for the most commercially successful film of all time. The film was also produced by his own production company suggesting that he effectively put the money up to make the film. So I don’t think for a second that there were any suits lurking in the background telling him to make a film full of CGI.

    As for the early bits, I do acknowledge that they’re quite effective but they’re not much of an improvement on a film that was made 45 years ago.

    And I completely disagree about whether it’s ambiguous. I think the film flirts with that idea and the vestigial plot-line about the boyfriend believing in her might well have supported an ambiguous ending but you see her being dragged to hell. In fact, it’s on the poster. Just because there’s a train nearby it doesn’t make the film ambiguous.

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  13. Patrick H permalink
    June 3, 2009 10:21 am

    And even if we assume a comical intent, that is one old, old, old, old joke. There’s potential for a new spin there – you could take a look at real Roma culture, eg, and re-knit the cliches into something new and interesting, something with a little more grit to it than “Haw haw – it’s a gypsy curse! ” I guess that doesn’t happen here. (Important clarification: I have not seen this film.)

    P

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