Ten years after its release, Sam Raimi’s return to Evil Dead-like horror remains a gory good time.
It was 2009, and some people were starting to forget a few things about Sam Raimi. He’d made his name in the horror genre with the Evil Dead movies, but he also branched out to other genres in the 90s, with the western The Quick and the Dead, the crime thriller A Simple Plan, and the romantic drama For Love of the Game. In the early 2000s, Raimi thrilled nerds once again (well, mostly) with the Spider-Man movies, which gave audiences a profitable, family-friendly superhero far before the Marvel Cinematic Universe rose to prominence. But if audiences forgot this was the same director who brought us some of cinema’s most hilariously disgusting horror, Raimi reminded us with the movie Drag Me to Hell, a delicious slice of wicked B-movie fun.
The tagline for the movie pulled no punches. The poster tells us, “Christine Brown has a good job, a great boyfriend, and a bright future. But in three days, she’s going to hell.” In other words, this could potentially be any of us who made a bad decision and got far more than they bargained for. 2009 was probably the only time Drag Me to Hell could’ve ended the way it did, with (spoiler!) protagonist Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) literally dragged to hell.
True, Christine may be a loan officer (which is right up there with IRS workers in terms of most despised on-screen professions), but it’s easy for us to see ourselves in her struggles, making her both sympathetic and easy to root for. There’s a slot for a cushy position at work, and she’s competing against a backstabbing colleague for it. Christine also has to deal with underappreciation and sexism, with her boss asking her to grab him a sandwich on her lunch break. It’s eventually revealed that Christine worked her way up from a harsh rural childhood with an alcoholic mother, and her loving boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) is being pressured to date someone with a higher social and financial status.
So when Christine is told that the right person for the promotion is the one who can make “tough decisions,” it’s deeply understandable why she chose to deny the elderly Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) a third extension on her mortgage, even after Mrs. Ganush begs on her knees. The problem is, she turns out to be a gypsy, and places a terrible curse on Christine, summoning an evil demon called the Lamia, which torments its victim over the course of three days, then literally drags them to hell.
The effects become apparent immediately, quickly escalating from mysterious voices to outright violence. Be warned: Drag Me to Hell is a scary movie that’s actually scary, and there’s no doubt that Christine’s torment is real. This is a shadowy, evil, force sends Christine horrifying, disgusting dreams that involve flies, vomiting, and worms. The Lamia is also physically violent, punching Christine in the face and throwing her through the air.
It also seems to know when it would be most inconvenient to come calling, causing Christine’s nose to bleed like a waterfall at work, and making her hallucinate just when she’s meeting Clay’s Ice Queen of a mother. With so many simultaneously horrific and relatable torments, it’s not hard to get invested in Christine’s struggles to escape her ultimate torment.
The movie also offers the tantalizing possibility of a safe harbor multiple times. At the advice of a seer (Dileep Rao), she sacrifices her pet kitten in an attempt to appease the demon, undertakes a dangerous séance, and even tries to give away the object the gypsy used to curse her, thus passing her torment on to someone else. Each time, it seems as if Christine has broken the curse, only for her to realize the fiery consequences of her actions still await.
In any other film, Christine would emerge victorious. She is a pretty, blonde, seemingly self-made woman on the rise who is sexy, yet not quite sexualized enough to risk slut-shaming. She’s faithful to the staunchly supportive Clayton, who considers her marriage material. She is vulnerable enough to earn our sympathy while being strong enough to fight and win our respect. In the end, she even takes the responsibility she spent the rest of the movie avoiding, stating that it was her, rather than her manager or the bank itself, who chose to deny the extension.
It is a horror story as the most frightening cautionary tale, one that applies to all of us.
“There are all sorts of reasons to be greedy and cruel to other people,” Raimi said in an interview. “They can be justified by logic, or you could use the rules of an institution or a government or the military. There are all sorts of reasons to torment and be cruel to others, justifiable, wonderful reasons.”
Yet it’s hard to believe that Raimi would’ve been able to stick to his message if Drag Me to Hell hadn’t been released so close to the 2008 financial crisis, where many of the very institutions that created the spiraling world economy were bailed out by many of the very people they most screwed over. It was just the right time for audiences to be receptive to its ultimate message of compassion for others under pressure, even if they’re not the people you’re trained to have compassion for.
Ironically, that message is in itself part of the movie’s main problem. The thing about B movies is, they’re generally not too respectful of other cultures, and Mrs. Ganush is a source of much of the movie’s gross-out scares, from her long dirty fingernails to her false teeth. After watching Drag Me to Hell, a Jewish friend mused, “The gypsies suffered in the Holocaust too, only the Jews ceased to be mythological creatures.”
There’s certainly truth in this statement. It’s difficult to imagine Drag Me to Hell getting away with treating any other culture or group the way it treats gypsies. To a person, they’re all depicted as magically sinister, with the Lamia specifically named as a force that’s “only summoned by gypsies for their darkest deeds.” It’s problematic, with Mrs. Ganush as a kind of supernatural monster along with the Lamia. Yet it is Mrs. Ganush who Drag Me to Hell sees as the real victim. She loses her home when Christine could’ve made a different choice. Christine may be more recognizable to us, but she’s also the one who suffers the most, and who ultimately succumbs to the fate protagonists like her typically avoid. It is a horror story as the most frightening cautionary tale, one that applies to all of us.