Blessed with a family-friendly PG-13 rating, Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell premiered at Cannes in 2009, was released to huge critical acclaim, and quickly became a box office hit, making $80 million worldwide against a $30 million budget. ‘It’s unlikely that most horror buffs will feel cheated,’ wrote Brent Simon in Screen Daily of Raimi’s choice to make a film with a PG-13 rating. ‘The director gleefully dispenses with the usual sacred cows (neither children nor kittens are safe), and also leans on wild gross-out moments to goose his audience.’ ‘The man is still able to tap into the creepy, the nasty, the violent, and the unpleasant … while always maintaining a wonderfully welcome tongue-in-cheek attitude,’ noted horror aficionado Scott Weinberg on the website Fearnet. Raimi drew special praise for his decision not to include the kind of graphic bodily violence typical of the Saw and Hostel films. Still, as Rex Reed pointed out in The New York Observer, the heroine still manages to find herself up to her ears in ‘corpse vomit, animal sacrifice, violent séances and open graves’. Reed’s was one of the film’s very few negative reviews. Most critics loved it, finding it to be innovative, fresh and original. But a closer look at Drag Me to Hell suggests Raimi’s crowd-pleaser might not be quite as innovative as it first appears.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, Drag Me to Hell is the story of young loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), who, in line for a promotion at her bank, tries to impress her boss by refusing to extend a loan to an ailing, snaggle-toothed gypsy named Mrs Ganush (Lorna Raver). In retaliation, as angry gypsies tend to do, Ganush places a curse on Christine, which promises that, after three days of ever escalating torment, she will be plunged into the depths of hell to burn for all eternity.
According to critics and fans, one of the most successful elements of Raimi’s film was its nostalgic style, from the deliberately retro Universal logo and stylised title font to the way it eschews computer-generated graphic effects in favour of creepy shadows and gloomy atmospherics. But while there is no blood in Drag Me to Hell apart from an improbably explosive nosebleed, the film surely reminds us that our bodies contain a lot of ghastly stuff as well as blood and guts, some of which is even more repellent. The film is soaked in sprays of slimy spittle, gobs of phlegm and pools of embalming fluid, not to mention an extruded eyeball, some rancid gums, and a flood of worm-encrusted corpse puke. This kind of detritus might seem disgusting to us now, but in a way, this, too, is a hearkening back to the past, when viscous ickiness was what horror movies were all about. In this sense, Drag Me to Hell reminds us of the moldy growths and clammy creatures of films like The Blob (Irvin S Yeaworth Jr, 1958), Frogs (George McCowan,1972), Shivers (David Cronenberg, 1975), Squirm (Jeff Lieberman, 1976), and The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968).
It is especially interesting that there has been no serious writing on Drag Me to Hell. On the contrary, virtually all those reviewing the film have emphasised that it is a deliberate exercise in jolts and thrills, a shock-filled roller-coaster ride with no subtext or deeper level. Roger Ebert, in the Chicago Sun Times, described the film as ‘a sometimes funny and often startling horror movie’, adding ‘[t]hat is what it wants to be, and that is what it is’. Variety‘s Peter Debruge found the film to be ‘scant of plot and barren of subtext’ and ‘single-mindedly devoted to pushing the audience’s buttons’.
Taking the film a little more seriously, however, we might approach it as an uncanny fantasy whose plot involves a certain amount of magical thinking – in psychoanalytic terms, the unconsciously held belief that our own thoughts can influence external events, emerging from a misperception of self-boundaries.
As Freud points out in his famous essay on the subject (1919), the Uncanny is that which reminds us of something from our childhood, long repressed, which now returns in an unfamiliar form. Drag Me to Hell is full of uncanny images and motifs, including simple, everyday objects that suddenly become unfamiliar. Corpses that return to life, insects that invade the body and animals that can talk all evoke the Uncanny. When faced with such things, we instinctively begin to wonder whether they are alive; if not, we wonder whether they once were alive, and, if so, whether they might be able to return to life at any moment. The Uncanny can be traced back to those infantile beliefs and desires that have since been surmounted â€” beliefs in such things as the omnipotence of thoughts, or the coming to life of inanimate objects. It is these kinds of beliefs that give expression to the animistic conception of the universe prevalent in infancy. Part of the process of growing up, Freud explains, involves giving them up, and yet most of us fail to do so, to a greater or lesser degree â€” partly because we don’t really want to. This kind of magical thinking allows us to believe in the enchantment of the world, even if this enchantment is evoked, as here, in the form of horror.
Part of the uncanny power of Drag Me to Hell lies in Raimi’s use of symbols and motifs from well-known legends and folktales, including such ghost story staples as a gypsy curse, a horned demon, a graveyard scene, a séance, and a spitting black cat. Most significantly, the half-blind Mrs Ganush is a jettatura, endowed with the ability to cast the Evil Eye, a curse that can be placed by fixing the gaze on a coveted object, person, or animal. In folklore as well as horror movies, the Evil Eye is one of the oldest jinxes of all time. Those believed to have the ability to cast this hex are those with unusual eyes, and – more particularly – those with one blue eye and one dark eye, like Mrs Ganush.
To rid herself of the hex, Christine visits a local psychic, Rham Jas (Dileep Rao). The first thing we see in Jas’s store is a Nazar amulet hanging on the wall â€” the blue stone commonly worn in the Middle East to ward off the Evil Eye. But it is too late. ‘Someone has cursed you,’ Rham Jas tells Christine.
The best-known and most respected scholarly work on the Evil Eye is an essay by the folklorist Alan Dundes entitled ‘Wet and Dry, The Evil Eye’. In this essay, Dundes explains that the origins of the Evil Eye are not envy, but our underlying beliefs about water equating to life and dryness equating to death. He posits that the true ‘evil’ done by the Evil Eye is that it causes living beings to ‘dry up’ â€” notably babies, milking animals, young fruit trees, and nursing mothers. The harm caused by the Evil Eye consists of sudden vomiting or diarrhoea in children, the drying up of milk in nursing mothers or livestock, the withering of fruit on orchard trees, and the loss of potency in men. In short, the envious eye ‘dries up liquids’, according to Dundes â€” a fact that he contends demonstrates its Middle Eastern desert origins. So in Italy, for example, men cover their testicles when passing someone they suspect might have the Evil Eye, or spit to prove that they are still capable of producing liquid. Women have similar concerns, in this case not being able to produce milk.
Intuitively, it appears, this notion is also key to Drag Me to Hell, which is, as many critics have noted, one of the wettest and messiest of movies. While Christine is young and juicy, Mrs Ganush is a shriveled, dried-up old crone, and whatever liquid remains in her body quickly comes out. In the bank, she coughs up a wad of yellow phlegm into her handkerchief, and then takes out her dentures, displaying a sticky stream of saliva. When Christine attends the gypsy wake, she trips and falls on to Mrs Ganush’s corpse, which vomits embalming fluid all over her face. Even after the gypsy is dead, she returns to Christine in nightmares, puking maggots into her pretty face. Meanwhile, the curse is working; Christine loses her promotion at the bank, alienates her boyfriend’s parents, and commits a desperate act in a fruitless attempt to lift the gypsy’s hex.
According to Rham Jas, the particular curse placed on Christine depends on ‘something taken from the victim, cursed, and given back’, and Christine recalls that, during the fight in the parking lot, Mrs Ganush tore a button from her coat, pronounced a spell over it, then returned it to her. Stolen objects like this button are often used in magic rituals, including voodoo, to bring bad luck or injury to their owners (Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough describes this kind of ritual as ‘contagious magic’). The idea of the object that dooms its owner to hell and must be passed on to some other poor victim is also a trope of folklore â€” in literature, it also appears in Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale ‘The Bottle Imp’, in which a similar curse is cast: if the owner of the bottle dies without having sold it in the prescribed manner, that person’s soul will burn for eternity in hell.
Interestingly, the same curse turns up in a much-anthologised 1911 ghost story by MR James entitled ‘Casting the Runes’, the inspiration for Jacques Tourneur’s 1957 film Night of the Demon, which itself, quite clearly, provided Raimi with much of the source material for Drag Me to Hell. Night of the Demon is the creepy tale of occultist Julian Karswell, (allegedly based on Aleister Crowley), who wreaks revenge on those who have slighted him with a fearsome curse. Karswell’s victims are tormented by a shadowy demon just like the one haunting Christine Brown in Drag Me to Hell, which we see only in silhouette, and in the form of mysterious hoof-and-horn shadows glimpsed under a door, and behind wind-blown curtains. In Night of the Demon a cursed parchment, surreptitiously passed to an unknowing victim, conjures up a goatish devil for two straight weeks of torment before accompanying him to hell.
Christine tries to subvert the curse by digging up the body of Mrs Ganush and placing what she believes to be the cursed button in her toothless mouth (it actually turns out to be a harmless coin). As everyone knows, in folklore and ghost stories, those who dig up corpses for nefarious purposes always suffer terrible punishment. In Mr Sardonicus (William Castle, 1961), based on a story by Ray Russell, a man who robs his father’s grave to retrieve a winning lottery ticket ends up with his face frozen into a terrifying rictus.
The climax of Night of the Demon sees the curse rebounding on Karswell, who is pushed under a train by his own, self-summoned devil. The conclusion of Drag Me to Hell echoes the earlier film and it comes as the last in a series of slick surprises â€” though if we’d paid close attention to the imperative of the film’s title, its ending would have been less of a jolt. The truth is, Christine was asking for it all along.
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