Drag Me to Hell
Produced by Buckaroo Entertainment
Directed by Sam Raimi
Screenplay by Sam and Ivan Raimi
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Some reviewers have hailed Drag Me to Hell as an hilariously ghoulish comedy. I can’t think why. Oddly enough, it takes calculating discipline to make a comedy genuinely hilarious, and that is what’s singularly missing from Drag, director Sam Raimi’s return to his horror roots, following his Spider-Man successes.
Raimi began in the 1980’s by making such stylish trash as The Evil Dead trilogy. Better was to come. Darkman (1990) displayed far more visual grace than Tim Burton’s often flat-footed Batman, and at a fraction of the cost. Then in 1998 Raimi directed A Simple Plan, a rare film adaptation that improves upon the novel from which it is drawn. Raimi muted the Grand Guignol aspect of Scott Smith’s narrative to focus on its Cain-and-Abel struggle, dramatizing how greed can drive otherwise unassuming citizens murderously bonkers.
The constant in Raimi’s films has been his imaginative tact. Although horror has often been his métier, he’s generally been able to draw a line between entertainingly scaring and grossly disgusting his audience. It’s this line that he breaches so thoroughly in Drag. Take the several scenes in which a gypsy hag hocks up gobs of green mucus onto the chubby cheeks of a terrified ingénue. One snot serving would have been quite enough for me, thank you.
How did it come to pass that the film’s pretty heroine suffered such besnotting? Therein lies the tale. Her name is Christine (Alison Lohman), an ambitious young woman who has set her cap for promotion at her bank. Her manager, however, has doubts. Is she aggressive enough for the assistant manager’s position? And then there’s that wily Asian employee vying for the job. (Raimi has Chinese-Filipino actor Reggie Lee play him as a smarmy, scheming go-getter, an endearing stereotype sure to unnerve the politically correct.)
Soon after her boss tells her of his doubts, Christine gets her chance to prove she can be as ruthless as her equal-opportunity competitor. Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), a ragged gypsy woman, comes to her desk pleading in broken English for a third extension on her defaulting mortgage. Christine instinctively wants to help the poor woman, but she fears that if she does, she will throw away her chance for the promotion. Reluctantly summoning her inner Darwinian, she rejects the woman’s plea, and the humiliated gypsy hurls a curse at her. As security guards haul the raving Mrs. Ganush from the bank, Christine hears the bank manager purr satanically over her shoulder, “You handled that just right, you know.” Christine smiles wanly.
She discovers just how wrong her boss was when she finds Mrs. Ganush waiting in the parking garage to attack her. During the ensuing battle, the old woman manages to rip a button from her coat. She needs it to complete her curse. Later that evening things begin to go bump in the night as an evil spirit known as Lamia (not Keats’ serpentine beauty, but a charmless goat-footed demon) torments Christine, slamming doors and windows and knocking the girl thoroughly about. Then a swarm of cockroaches rushes from her mouth. At work she has a geyser-like nosebleed, soaking her boss red. “Did any of the blood get in my mouth?” he cries in an edifying show of all-American self-interest. A spiritualist explains that Lamia will continue in this fashion for three days and then drag Christine to hell. To prevent this, she must retrieve the cursed button and give it to someone else who will then be dragged hellward in her stead. That’s when we learn that Christine’s boss was actually correct all along. She is simply not ruthless enough. Although she tries to give the button away, she cannot bring herself to pass the curse on to someone else, not even to the scurrilous Asian. And so Christine becomes increasingly desperate as the plot hurtles to its climax.
Rather than scaring me, the spectacle of a young woman battered, besieged, and besnotted stirred my dormant sense of chivalry. I felt no inclination to laugh at this helpless young lady’s travail. She needed someone to rescue her, but no one seemed up to the task, certainly not her wimpy boyfriend, played by Justin Long, the actor who incarnates modish reasonableness in those Macintosh advertisements. His character is much too enlightened to acknowledge Christine’s dark demon, let alone defend her from it. She needed someone much more elementally masculine to face the terror she let loose. Was this possibly Raimi’s point? That in a world stripped of archaic chivalry, a world in which women are pressured to be as go-getting as men, the better instincts of both sexes have atrophied? If so, I must applaud his integrity. He’s put audience-appeal second to his theme of chivalry banished from a gender-neutral world. If this is not his point, then I suppose we will have to await his next Spider-Man outing. Peter Parker is nothing if not chivalrous.