Ten years later, future homebuyer Stevi Costa still enjoys Sam Raimi’s incredibly silly horror comedy Drag Me to Hell but questions its reliance on ethnic stereotypes and its flat characterizations of the central two women.
My husband and I are thinking about buying a house. I offer this piece of information to tell you that real estate is scary, and therefore the premise of Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell seems both more frightening to me now than it was a decade ago, and also infinitely sillier.
The plot of Drag Me to Hell is incredibly simple: fresh-faced Allison Lohman plays Christine Brown, a sunny former farm girl now living in Los Angeles and trying to work her way into a big promotion at a bank where she is currently employed as a loan officer. She denies a mortgage deferment to a very old Eastern European woman, Sylvia Ganush, who then curses Christine. Spooky stuff happens, and a terrified Christine learns that if she doesn’t get rid of the curse, she will literally be dragged to Hell in three days’ time. She tries lots of things to get rid of the curse, animal sacrifice and a hilarious séance among them, but ultimately learns that the only way to get rid of the curse is to make a genuine gift of it to someone else. Goodhearted by nature, Christine digs up the deceased Sylvia Ganush and regifts the curse by stuffing a button (the vessel through which the curse was bound to Christine) in the mouth of the corpse. All is well…until we learn that Christine mistakenly gifted her boyfriend’s antique quarter to the dead woman, not the accursed button, as both items were round and contained in similar envelopes. She is dragged to Hell. The End.
The lesson here is that loan officers should be kinder. I would like loan officers to watch this film for my own benefit as someone in a “unique” financial situation that makes conventional mortgages, and therefore homebuying, an unideal process. But I don’t have a demon curse as a bargaining chip, so I guess I’m SOL here.
That the plot of Drag Me to Hell hinges on real estate finance is exactly why it’s both scary and silly at the same time. Buying a house is a really daunting and scary to me at this particular moment, but damn if a real estate-related curse isn’t a silly fucking idea for a movie. Scary and silly at the same time. And, truthfully, I think that’s what Sam Raimi is always going for, isn’t he? This is the man who brought us both the delightful campfest that is the Evil Dead series and the misguided hilarity of Tobey Maguire’s emo dancing Spider-Man. This film is very much a Sam Raimi film in how it chooses to undercut moments of terror with gross slapstick. My favorite moment from 10 years ago, and remains my favorite moment today, is during the last-ditch séance in which the Lamia, a demon that possesses people and isn’t entirely related to the Christine Brown plot, is called. The demon literally dances its way through people, lifting members of the séance in the air and puppeting their bodies. It also possesses a goat, who calls Christine a bitch, which is hilarious for obvious reasons. Raimi also crafts a scene in which youthful, beautiful Christine is attacked by old, weird Mrs. Ganush in her car on the day the loan is denied. During this scene, Mrs. Ganush’s dentures fall out and she tries to gum Christine’s face off. Christine hits her with a stapler at some point and staples her eye shut. There’s a lot of scratching and saliva. After Mrs. Ganush dies (of natural causes, we presume), Christine clumsily upends her casket at the funeral, causing the old woman’s body to land directly atop her and spew bile into her face. See what I mean? It’s all very gross and funny, rather than scary, and that makes it pure Sam Raimi. The smart, engaged social horror of Jordan Peele this is not. The disgusting gorefest of the Saw franchise it ain’t. It’s just stupid dumb fun. I liked it 10 years ago and I still find it pretty amusing now.
But it is 10 years later, so we have to talk about two things in this film that don’t exactly age well. First, the idea of curses is introduced in a frame story about a young boy being possessed by the Lamia. In this frame, narrated in Spanish, the boy’s parents attribute this curse to “gypsies.” Of course. The idea of a “gypsy curse” is never again uttered in the film, but Eastern European Mrs. Ganush is styled in the conventional Hollywood way that older Romani women have been styled for years: thick, mysterious accent, propensity to wear black, a love of floral headscarves. Her costuming and accent are both somewhat ambiguous. It’s hard to know exactly where in Central or Eastern Europe she is supposed to be from, and even when we meet her family at her funeral, we are no closer to solving this mystery. The lack of specificity here, paired with the initial frame that invokes curses made by “gypsies,” allows the viewer to interpret Mrs. Ganush as an actual Romani person, for whom the term “gypsy” has been leveraged as an ethnic slur. As we are beginning to acknowledge the Romani people correctly, and are erasing the slur from our vocabulary, sometimes these little in-between moments crop up that reinforce uncomfortable stereotypes as much as the words themselves do. I don’t think you could make a film in 2019 that specifically locates the Romani as a source of a curse—unless it were made by a Romani person and was doing something challenging, critical, and productive with the idea of an ethnically specific curse. But the stereotypical notion that the Romani offer powerful curses has contributed to their marginalization, murder, and erasure from culture until very recently, and Drag Me to Hell does not do anything to challenge or critique this—especially not through its deliberate ambiguity around Mrs. Ganush’s ethnic origins.
The film also turns on a contrast between the dewey youthfulness of size zero Christine Brown and the rumpled and withered Mrs. Ganush, who is so old her body frequently breaks apart and deteriorates before our very eyes in the film. This contrast obviously enhances Christine’s misfortune, both in terms of the cultural values we place on youth and beauty, as well as the mythic and fairy tale origins of those values. We expect Christine to be kind because of her innocent-looking face, soft demeanor, and tiny little voice. She is girlish, perhaps like a princess in a fairy tale. Her choice to deny Mrs. Ganush the deferral (in an attempt to win favor with her boss, David Paymer) contradicts the expectations we’ve placed on her appearance. Likewise, Mrs. Ganush’s age and fragility heightens the cruelty in this action. She begs for sympathy. So, like a goddess in disguise, when she is refused kindness, she turns to vengeance to curse Christine for her lack of grace and humility. This is a story structure that cautions us to offer kindness to others wherever possible—especially toward the elderly. However, the film more consciously makes use of such a striking difference in appearance between the two women to gross us out, with Sylvia Ganush’s dentureless jaws gnawing on Christine’s pert little chin; her sharp, blackened and yellowed nails drumming on Christine’s desk; close ups on her cataracted eyeball; and so, so much saliva and sputum all around. In every case, Mrs. Ganush’s elderly body is either the butt of a joke or a site of terror—specifically, a terrorizing Christine’s pristine beauty. And, since this is a Sam Raimi film, it’s often both at once.
Is it kind of awesome that this is a film centered on two women? For 2009, that’s totally awesome, but it is also much less charming that these two women are locked in the tired conflict between youth and age, beauty and ugliness on both a literal and metaphorical level. I am fine with stories about women being centered on conflict, but that conflict has to be informed and driven by interesting characterization, and these women are basically still just outlines. There’s really not much to either of these characters beyond two or three bullet points apiece. Certainly, both characters have goals, and Christine has ambitions and little scratches of a life (she likes ice cream, has a boyfriend who is a college professor, she grew up on a farm, she is a vegetarian), but they are both flat characterizations rather than round characterizations, and so their value to the story really seems to be about their aesthetic contrast. It’s visually interesting, certainly, but I am bothered by how tightly this film centers their bodies as visual signifiers to tell us something about who they are as people.
Perhaps the most egregious and inexplicable way in which Christine’s body is used as a character signifier is her love of ice cream. At one point early in the film, she considers eating a tub of ice cream, but then looks at a picture of herself at the county fair from when she was a child, noticeably much chubbier than size zero Alison Lohman. Ostensibly, the purpose for this detail is to set up a later punchline where a down and out Christine sits at a diner, repeatedly ordering ice cream sundaes as she considers gifting the curse to her rival at work. The ice cream is how you know she’s desperate. It’s hard to care about your waistline when you might get dragged to Hell tomorrow. Honestly, I don’t think that’s a bad way to live life: enjoying whatever you want because you might die tomorrow. But the film isn’t endorsing that perspective. Rather, it uses this entire detail to reinforce how Christine’s life should be: thin, polite, and in her own control. Otherwise, this fat joke exists for no reason at all in the story, and, to me, seems both a little cruel and incredibly boorish from a writing standpoint. It’s as though the Raimi brothers went through a list of stereotypes about women and decided “loving ice cream” and “watching their waistlines” were how you create round characters. This, to me, is more insulting than the equally tired age/beauty dichotomy on which this film turns. I could really do without a female character in a movie being characterized entirely by her dietary choices ever again.
Oh, and there is one other totally inexplicable thing about this film and it’s this: Justin Long is the romantic lead. Why is that a thing?
— Stevi Costa