Friday, May 29, 2009

Drag Me to Hell: The Ultimate Eviction

Posted By and on Fri, May 29, 2009 at 1:26 PM

6599/1243617508-dragmetohell.jpgHey, it’s Blockbluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart climb out from under their film-snob rock, to find out what regular people all over the country are eating popcorn during. This week, like Dante, they go to hell, with Sam Raimi as their Virgil.

HENRY:
The first thing that struck me about the very enjoyable Drag Me to Hell, Sam "Evil Dead" Raimi's anticipated return to horror after many years of pseudo-prestige work (cf. A Simple Plan) and Spidermannery, was its goofy old-school racism. Basically about gypsy curses, the movie opens with our first hex-victim: a Latino boy who has stolen a Roma's necklace. Typical thieving Hispanics. Forty years later, we meet our heroine Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), a loan officer (boo! hiss!) struggling to succeed in a man's world; her competition at work is a Pinoy prick named Stu (Reggie Lee, who previously played an Pinoy prick on Prison Break). And her trouble begins when she denies a loan extension to Mrs. Ganush, a gypsy, er, "wandering-American" (Lorna Rover), effectively foreclosing on the hideous one-eyed woman's home. The gypsy curses her, and Christine seeks help from an Orientalized psychic (Dileep Rao), whose shopfront office is filled with shrunken monkey heads and the sounds of raga music.

Raimi, whose parents are of Russo-Hungarian lineage, seems never to have met a non-white person, especially of Eastern European extraction, that could be trusted or not reduced to a caricature-or at least who wasn't totally gross. Like the rest of the film, its origins are in the broadness of old comic books-but is it also rooted in a bit of self-loathing? Christine, incidentally, has a very nice boyfriend: the very white Clay (Justin "I'm a Mac" Long), a WASPy professor who happens to have two Apple monitors and an iPhone prominently displayed in his office.

BEN:
Despite its rainbow of minority caricatures (with the notable exception of African-Americans) weren't WASPs Drag me to Hell's most thoroughly ridiculed constituency? In addition to Clay, the sickeningly sweet boyfriend I kept hoping would die, the dinner scene at his parents' home was some brilliant parody of upper-class civility (a white collar version of the monstrous dinner in Texas Chainsaw Massacre?), which really describes this movie in a nutshell. In his muddled distinctions between racial and national origins, Raimi made a great movie about middle-class angst. After all, the whole film's action is triggered by Christine's power play to get promoted to Assistant Manager and distance herself from an alcoholic mother still living on the family farm. Her cozy L.A. home reminded me of another recent class crisis movie, Right At Your Door, where terrorist attacks turn a man's semi-suburban life into a deathtrap.

Raimi portrays foreclosure as a danger for his Roma villainess (and recent figures suggest minorities are the most at risk here in New York), but he's also tapping into fears of increasing downward social mobility. Appropriately, Christine's two attempts at assuaging the hilarious farmhouse demon Lamia (a goat from Hell) involve tapping into her own origins on the farm — sacrificing an animal and digging a big hole (in a Tim Burton-esque graveyard). Maybe this tirelessly rewarding horror comedy is really about sustainable living and urban farming. At any rate it presents a sustained assault on middle-class propriety, from its barrage of bodily fluids (blood, bug-laced vomit, eye juice, phlegm, etc.) to the gaudy homes of its non-white characters: the psychic's shopfront, as you mentioned, but also Mrs. Ganush's daughter’s house (which made me think of German Expressionist set design) and the baroque excess of medium Shaun San Dena's (Adriana Barraza) palatial home. When Latina psychics have nicer digs than WASPy professionals, it's clear something seriously strange is happening to America's class system.

HENRY:
Oh, Right at Your Door — you mean that public service announcement from the Plastics Council? Anyway, I would argue African-Americans are present in the film, in the form of the Lamia, which we mostly see throughout the film as a shadow; essentially, Christine spends the bulk of the film chased by a big black man. You're on to something about Drag Me to Hell being about middle class angst, vis-à-vis race and origin. But it's also very much about femininity — and awfully misogynistic. Just as every ethnic group is presented through a contemptuous lens, so too does every distaff character appear less than sympathetic. Most obvious is Christine, who hurts hardworking folk out of shameful self-interest; she also kills a kitten and, in a late scene, is very rude to a waitress. (Cruelty to service employees is as sure an indicator of villainy as kicking a dog.)

We might see her as an example of how much meaner a woman has to be to succeed, how much harder she has to work: for example, we see her boss make her, and not her male colleague, take work home; she also has to fetch the boys' lunches. We see her get talked down to by doctors and her boyfriend, and insulted by Ganush's granddaughter: "you used to be a real fat girl?" The dictionary tells me that "the curse" is a euphemism for menstruation; Christine's true curse may be her gender. The film's other females don't come off much better: Christine's off-screen mother, as you mention, is an alcoholic, and Clay's mother is some sort of suburban superbitch. Contrast them to the male characters: Clay may be insufferable, but he's insufferably kind, and his father (Chelcie Ross) is decorous to a fault.

Then there's Mrs. Ganush, who as the ugliest and nastiest woman in the movie is also the only vaguely Sapphic one. She attacks Christine for the first time in an underground parking garage, a standard rape zone, and was it just me or did her attacks frequently take the form of open-mouth kisses — gross, gross kisses? Their struggles were awful catfight-y, that most erotic form of violence, including but not limited to tearing out each other's hair. Near the end, the old woman even fists Christine. By sticking her arm down her throat, sure, but still. (Christine's holes are frequently violated, most memorably by a housefly that goes in one nostril and comes out the other.) The only exception might be Shaun San Dena, who is strong enough to take on the Lamia. Pardon me for the following spoilers, but her strength proves, in short order, to be her undoing. Raimi doesn't even allow Christine to be the last girl standing; he really does drag her to hell in the final frames, giving her her well-deserved comeuppance. If the race depictions indicate something about Raimi's feelings in relation to his Eastern European heritage, the gender portrayals might demonstrate he's got some serious mommy issues. Or perhaps he's just inherited a bunch of assumptions from the genre parameters within which he works so expertly, faithfully, and sometimes subversively.

Ben:
You're right that Raimi very self-consciously subverts the final girl horror convention (as coined by Carol Clover), but I'm not so sure this is a symptom of the film's generic misogyny. We're aligned with Christina throughout, after all, and as you pointed out her biggest mistake (not giving Mrs. Ganush another extension on her loan) comes when she tries to play along with the unfavorably gender-coded rules of her bank workplace. To me that "twist" ending was more an open acknowledgement of a theme that runs throughout Drag Me to Hell: Raimi and his audience's complete fluency with the tropes and tactics of horror movies. After all, there are few films that make such a loud, jumpy fuss out of such meager narrative ingredients (The Shining comes to mind). As you noted, the Lamia never really appears, yet its deafening, predictable and delightful visits feature spooky shadows, indoor tornados and tearing trap doors in the Earth's crust. Like Count Dracula with his bats, it takes the form of smaller things to do much of its bidding: a grossly inquisitive fly and a sentient, malevolent handkerchief — a ridiculous conceit that reminded me of this Family Guy clip wherein Stephen King pitches his latest book about a lamp monster (the clip is in Italian, because Fox is evil).

In fact, the horror elements here are so abstract, minimalist even — strong winds, vaguely horned and hoofed shadows, rattling walls and objects — that for a while I was hoping the final twist would be a David Mamet-style mind game reveal where the whole narrative turns out to have been a series of carefully orchestrated schemes to extort money from a naïve dupe and to keep the audience guessing (as in House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner). After all, much is made of the various sums Christine and Clay have to pay out to psychics and mediums — she even sells all her material goods — and now I'm back to thinking this might be a film about class crisis, plummeting spending power and making do with less: fewer useless belongings, single-car households and smaller homes. (Yikes, I'm starting to sound like the Conscientious Objector!)

Of course you're right to note that Raimi's ostensible assault on consumerism offends pretty much every conceivable constituency along the way. Maybe the problem with turning the financial crisis into a horror narrative (as done most successfully, I'd say, in George A. Romero's prescient Land of the Dead) is that often the bad guys in the fiction aren't the bad guys in real life (as in South Park's misguided zombie episode about homelessness and foreclosures). In that respect, maybe it's good that Drag Me to Hell's newly promoted bank manager gets her comeuppance in the end. After all, she got herself (us) into this mess, so it's fitting that she should get the ultimate demotion (to Hell) for her mistake.

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