Sunday, June 7, 2009

Movie Review: Drag Me to Hell

Dragged to the theater!

Drag Me to Hell, written by Sam Raimi and Ivan Raimi. Directed by Sam Raimi. Starring Alison Lohman, Justin Long, and Lorna Raver. Universal Pictures (2009). Rated PG-13. USCCB Rating is AIII--Adults.

At time of writing, the film has a 93% rating on the Tomatometer. See Joseph's review at Life's Enchanting.

Sam Raimi, director of the Spider-Man films, got his start in movies with the cult classic Evil Dead, an ultra-low-budget zombie film he made in college and later turned into a trilogy that established him as an undisputed master of comedic horror, as well as an undisputed master of innovative cinematography and editing. If you've never experienced Evil Dead, you owe it to yourself to get liquored up (so it appears to make sense) and at least watch Army of Darkness. It would be absurd to die without having seen the "groovy" sequence (you'll know which one I mean) and the final fight in the grocery store. Hail to the king, baby!

In Drag Me to Hell, Raimi returns to his roots with a bubblegum horror flick abounding in cheap thrills, cheap laughs, gross-out gags, one-liners, and schlock (and lots and lots of Evil Dead references). Taken by itself, it offers little to quibble about. Taken in relation to the rest of Raimi's work, however, it is disappointing in that it breaks no new ground, but rather retreads ground Raimi has already thoroughly covered.

The plot, what there is of it, involves Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), a sweet and bubbly farm-girl-turned-loan-officer. When an elderly gypsy woman, Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), begs her for an extension on her mortgage, Christine, eyeing a promotion, makes the "tough decision" and refuses. Mrs. Ganush takes the logical next step and attacks Christine in that classic horror film location, an empty parking garage, where (after an impressive, signature Raimi fight sequence) she lays on her an ancient gypsy curse: for three days, Christine will be tormented by the cartoonish goat-demon Lamia (not to be confused with the mythological figure), after which the Lamia will drag her to straight to hell.

That means three days' worth of projectile vomit, explosive nosebleeds, hell-flies, scary shadows, creaking noises, and eyeballs popping up in weird places as Christine repeatedly goes to a medium (Dileep Rao) to try to find ways to lift the curse. Unfortunately, Christine never quite figures out that if a monster tries to come in here, you have to kick its ask. Otherwise, if it comes in here, it's gonna kick your ask.

The film poses as a morality tale, but does little to develop that theme. On a few occasions, Christine lies and claims it's her boss's fault rather than her own that she foreclosed on Mrs. Ganush's house. This is apparently meant to establish some plausibility for the curse and some notion that Christine is getting her just desserts. However, the movie's focus is on jump scares and sight gags: Drag Me to Hell wants us to get scared and then laugh at ourselves for getting scared; it doesn't care whether we take home a message about being kind to others.

On the other hand, Drag Me to Hell is arguably a little subversive, poking fun at morality tale horror by purposely using a mundane situation (refusing to extend a mortgage, of all things) as a pretense for supernatural punishment. The movie has the characteristics of a parody; its plot line is more-or-less identical to a "scare the hell into you" low-budget pious horror film I watched as a Baptist kid (and if you've never experienced the unique joys of pious Christian horror, you owe it to yourself to see The Appointment, which has a plot outline nearly identical to Drag Me to Hell, except with Christian elements).

Surprisingly (to me), the review at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops declares the film more-or-less harmless, saying it "need not be taken seriously," even though the USCCB reviewers are usually, in my experience, unsympathetic to gross-out jokes and horror films. Regarding my own emotional reaction to the movie, I found it quite funny and only nominally frightening, but I was rather disturbed by the fight sequence involving the beating of an elderly woman. Granted, the elderly woman was the assailant, but I still found myself wincing when Mrs. Ganush got her dentures knocked out against a car dashboard. Even in intentionally tasteless but good-humored films like this one, I don't find the beating of elderly women to be very cool.

I see two potential Christian reactions to the film. One I will call the Lewis response, and the other I will call the Chesterton response, not because I think I know how either C. S. Lewis or G. K. Chesterton would respond to the movie, but because I will base my two responses off their writings.

In The Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape advises his nephew Wormwood that, should the man Wormwood is tempting ever come to suspect Wormwood's existence, he ought to do the following:

If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old textbook method of confusing them) he therefore cannot believe in you.

Drag Me to Hell, figuratively speaking, has a lot of red tights. With its exaggerated, comical, cartoonish depictions of demons, not to mention its silly magical ways of attempting to appease or dispel them, it arguably does what Screwtape proposes. Though the movie has the characteristics of a stern morality tale, by making light of sin, retribution, and the supernatural, it might not have the effect a morality tale should have on its audience.

On the other hand, in Alarums and Discursions, G. K. Chesterton has an essay entitled "The Nightmare" on the subject of what we now call the horror genre. To get the full sense of what Chesterton is stabbing at, I must quote him at some length:


That is the stern condition laid upon all artists touching this luxury of fear. The terror must be fundamentally frivolous. Sanity may play with insanity; but insanity must not be allowed to play with sanity. Let such poets...be free to imagine what outrageous deities and violent landscapes they like. By all means let them wander freely amid their opium pinnacles and perspectives. But these huge gods, these high cities, are toys; they must never for an instant be allowed to be anything else. Man, a gigantic child, must play with Babylon and Ninevah, with Isis and with Ashtaroth. By all means let him dream of the Bondage of Egypt, so long as he is free from it...

In one of Stevenson's letters there is a characteristically humorous remark about the appalling impression produced on him in childhood by the beasts with many eyes in the Book of Revelations: "if that was heaven, what in the name of Davy Jones was hell like?" Now in sober truth there is a magnificent idea in these monsters of the Apocalypse. It is, I suppose, the idea that beings really more beautiful or more universal than we are might appear to us frightful and even confused. Especially they might seem to have senses at once more multiplex and more staring; an idea very imaginatively seized upon in the multitude of eyes. I like those monsters beneath the throne very much. But I like them beneath the throne. It is when one of them goes wandering in deserts and finds a throne for himself that evil faith begins, and there is (literally) the devil to pay--to pay in dancing girls and human sacrifice.

I'm sure we're all ready to condemn human sacrifice (I admit to being more reluctant to condemn dancing girls), but what Chesterton is saying is that the genre of horror literature should always be a frivolous and humorous enterprise simply because to treat it seriously is to lose sight of what is wholesome and good. Horror should, in his estimation, make us scared--and then make us laugh at ourselves for being scared. Certainly Drag Me to Hell follows Chesterton's instructions. Taking Chesterton's essay as a starting point, we may agree with the USCCB reviewer who says the film "need not be taken seriously." Beginning here, we may go back and find that the film really doesn't contradict Lewis's warning in The Screwtape Letters at all, for even Screwtape is an absurd and humorous character, a droning bureaucrat for whom hell is a business operation complete with offices and paperwork. The danger of the Thing in Red Tights is not that we might mock devils, but simply that we might decide devils don't exist because they can be mocked, an illogical conclusion. Drag Me to Hell is uninterested in the existence or nonexistence of demons; it is merely interested in mocking them, a not altogether impious enterprise: the humorous devil character--along with the humorous mummery used to dispel him--appears in the Book of Tobit.

(I must give a mild spoiler warning for this section.) Worth reading is Annie Young Frisbie's review of the movie at Christianity Today, partly because (I have to say it) there's something charming about the name Annie Young Frisbie. Frisbie takes seriously Drag Me to Hell's moral matters and compares the film to Raimi's earlier Simple Plan, which also depicts bad moral choices resulting in downward spirals. Frisbie writes, "It's easy to see that the theology of Drag Me to Hell misses out on the glorious gospel truth that Jesus Christ triumphed over death so that Christine and the rest of us don't have to."

Perhaps, but that assumes the movie has ambitions beyond the modest ones of being an effective shock comedy. If we were to seriously compare Drag Me to Hell against Christian theology, we might find the movie lacking: it has an almost total absence of any notion of repentance, restitution, redemption, or grace. It is a film about damnation and damnation only. Even though it contains demons and hell, it is also curiously lacking in Judeo-Christian references or imagery; Christine goes repeatedly to a medium and holds a seance to get rid of her demon, but not once does she try waving a crucifix or splashing holy water after the manner of monster films, or (more likely to be effective) repenting of her misdeed. However, even in this arguable deficiency, the film shows a certain perception; there may be no grace here, but the need for grace is evident: "The Lamia cannot be abolished by a medium," as one character states. Christine has sinned, but she tries to escape the consequences only through means that require no change on her part. Throughout the movie, Christine seeks to keep her sin and to find salvation, too. She discovers, to her loss, that she cannot have both. That, by the way, is the difference between what Christine attempts in Drag Me to Hell and what the characters accomplish in the Book of Tobit; Tobit may depict exorcism by means of burning fish guts, but even more important to the story are prayer and good deeds united to the grace of God. Drag Me to Hell is not really missing out; it's merely limited in what it says, but what it says, it says well, considering that it pretends to be nothing more than a B-movie.

Content Advisory: Contains bloodless action violence, frequent gross-out humor, frightening imagery, a nongraphic premarital bedroom scene, and some vulgarity.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Drag Me to Hell:

Myth Rating: Medium (classic storyline, use of mostly made-up folklore)

Quality: Medium-High (superbly directed, highly entertaining, lacking in character development if anyone actually cares)

Ethics/Religion: Medium (okay morality tale, contains an unmarried couple in bed and some crass language)
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