All movies are, in some way or another, a reflection of their times. Horror movies, preying as they do on collective fears in order to scare us, are perhaps a more self-conscious commentary on the time in which they are made than other genres. In 30s horror films such as Frankenstein (James Whale, USA, 1931) and The Mummy (Karl Freund, USA, 1932), all those experts who didn’t know what they were doing and ended up bringing forth monsters, all those weak and ineffectual men, and all the women those men were unable to prevent from being preyed upon sexually and psychology, were thought to be a reflection of, and commentary on, The Great Depression. Today, we’re living through another Economic Disaster and contemporary horror is telling us equally interesting, if different things, about the world we live in. Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi, USA, 2009) is a case in point.
Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) former fat girl still fresh from the farm, is a loan officer with a bank. She’s going out with a Clay Dalton (Justin Long), a young university professor from a rich family. Christine wants to move up in life. She’s working hard on herself, learning ‘proper’ diction from audio-tapes, and also working hard at her job. She’s up for a promotion but has a competitor in Stan Rubin (Reggie Lee) who, in spite of being Chinese-American, benefits from being a man and having Lakers tickets to give to the boss, Mr. Jacks (David Payman). The boss worries that, in spite of her excellent qualifications and her work ethic, Christine won’t be able to make the tough decisions necessary to be Assistant Bank Manager. However, he offers her a chance to prove him wrong. Unfortunately for Christine, that chance comes when an old gypsy woman, Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), comes to ask for a third extension on her mortgage. Mr. Jacks leaves the decision entirely up to Christine, and though it is in her power to help Mrs. Ganush, Christine opts instead to show she’s got the right mentality to climb up the corporate ladder. Big Mistake. Christine makes it worse when Mrs. Ganush gets on her knees to beg and instead of helping her up, she calls security, thus not only depriving her of her home but also of her pride. The audience fully understands why Christine turns the old lady down. But it is with the old gypsy when she visits the curse of the Lamia on her: a loan officer, Christine, will suffer horribly for three days after which she will be dragged straight to Hell. Hooray!
Drag Me to Hell is a wonderful movie. It’s got a thrilling pre-amble, a flashback to forty years ago that opens the film in an exciting manner whilst setting the context for the subsequent narrative. The Lamia Curse’s three-day deadline is a most effective structuring device for the story and one’s mind is constantly trying to work out the next turn. The heroine and the villainess are both nicely balanced, one understand the motivations of both and the film benefits from two powerful and witty central performances from Alison Lohman as Christine and Lorna Raver as Mrs. Ganush. Director Sam Raimi, lately director of the Spider-Man films, here returns to his roots and achieves a complex mix of expertly-judged tone, sometimes simultaneously making the audience laugh whilst feeling both scared and disgusted. It’s a film that’s made for the audience, much rarer than one would think, and the audience appreciates it. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a cinema where the audience has been so vocal in demonstrating unequivocal enjoyment of the variety of pleasures the film offers.
The response to Drag Me to Hell whilst watching it is physical. But like the very best Horror, later on, whilst mulling it over, the film also offers something to think about. Drag Me to Hell is an interesting commentary on how things have changed in America. Firstly, we get an interesting depiction of who America is now considered to be made up of. The whole preamble to the film is in Spanish with sub-titles, perhaps a nod to the growing percentage of the American population that is of Hispanic origin. Christine’s rival in the bank is called Stu Rubin but is played by Jackie Lee so either he was cast blind or given that name to alleviate Chinese-American stereotyping. Interestingly, the only non-white or Asian (in the American sense of the term) amongst the principals is Dileep Rao as Rham Jas, the fortune teller. With Obama President, it would hardly do to cast an African American in the mystic hocus pocus role; but clearly things have not yet progressed to the point where they’d cast a black man as Christine’s love interest either. It might also be worth pointing out that the only social group tinged with villainy is the gypsies, presumably the only one without a sufficiently strong lobby group in Washington. So this film’s America has a poor nice blond girl from the heartland at its centre, a nice weak white middle-class professional (with an in-built joke as the Psychology professor who doesn’t believe in mumbo jumbo) entrenched, if ineffectual, at the periphery. Hispanics, East Asians and Chinese, the film tells us, are very much at the heart of this America if not yet representative of it. These nasty new immigrants from Eastern Europe, however, are clearly a curse.
Class is a recurring issue in the film. Christine is poor and embarrassed by her origin. We are introduced to her practicing ‘correct’ diction whilst listening to audio-tapes in her car, something I don’t remember ever seeing in an American film before. It’s rare for American films to make distinctions between class and money, and certainly accent has rarely been an indicator of bank balance. Moreover, I’ve not recently seen rich people portrayed as negatively as they are in this movie; the father, ugly and ineffectual; the mother a thin, drawn, dragon-lady, her flesh clearly a sacrifice to her ambition; their house, a picture of soul-less minimalism; their values ones sure to make the audience wish the curse of the Lamia on them.
Christine is made to be very sympathetic. She’s a good girl, with a nice nerdy professional boyfriend. She used to be fat (Pork Queen in fact) and now isn’t, which in recent American culture has sometimes been depicted as akin to overcoming the affects of both thalidomide and drug addiction. Her mother is an alcoholic, which in a nation in which, until recently, people have competed amongst themselves to claim victimhood, has usually been enough to milk sympathy for practically anything, working effectively as a rationale and excuse for countless nasty actions. However, that was then and this is now. Christine is a loan officer. She’s effectively turned someone from her home and repossessed their house when she didn’t need to. In the current climate, and if the audience is any indication, that’s enough to get anyone dragged to hell. We like Christine, we understand her. However, when she need to get ahead she chucks an old lady on the street; when it comes to the crunch, she’s willing to sacrifice her cherished and helpless kitty to save her own ass. She’s nice yes. We understand her. We like her. But she’s done wrong and bankers have run out of excuses. Two years ago she might have lived. In the current climate, does she get dragged straight to hell? Is it a spoiler to say, ‘No Shit Sherlock’?