Thursday, June 11, 2009

Movies: Aw, Hell – 3 random observations on "Drag Me to Hell."

1. The Anti-Diary of the Dead

The prodigal son trope one finds in nearly every review of DMtH is a little deceptive. While the film does indeed mark Sam Raimi's return to horror, it oddly implies that he was, before the lure of Hollywood superstardom steered him wrong, predominantly a horror director and that he's been away from the mater genre for long time.

In fact, less than a third of Raimi's directorial efforts have been horror films. The characterization of Raimi as a horror director has more to do with horror fandom's perpetual surly provincialism than any full assessment of Raimi's directorial career. As for Raimi's 40 years of wandering the Hollywood desert, the length of the break between Army of the Dead and DMtH is just a couple years longer than the break between Army and Evil Dead 2. Or the break between ED2 and the original evil dead, for that matter. Raimi just doesn't make many horror movies and he certainly doesn't make them that often.

That said, a comparison between another "return of the master" flick yields some interesting results. Much as Raimi's latest was given a strangely indier-than-thou moral gloss and framed as the director returning to a simpler, purer style of filmmaking, George Romero – perhaps more validly considered a horror master – was thought to have lost his way in the big budget excesses of Land of the Dead, and diary was framed in terms of a sort of aesthetic purification. Both films were linked, either explicitly or implicitly, to the franchises that made the director's names.

But Drag Me to Hell works and Diary of the Dead is a dog. When it came time to see if Romero still had the juice, he came up dry. Raimi, however, took a swing at something easily within his wheelhouse and connected. The difference is, I think, the latter's commitment to making a fun film. An entertaining, if mostly silly and forgettable, spookshow of jump scares and slime FX, Drag never lapses into tedious lecturing or drinks the cool-aid of its own mythology.

2. The First Lynch the Banker Movie of the New Depression

In the early days of Depression 1.0, Hollywood was divided over just how to handle the class distinctions the economic crisis brought into plain sight. Early filmmakers treated it as fodder for comedy. The rich, while foolish, just needed a good Godfrey to straighten them out. As the crisis wore on and then shaded into war, however, the bubble-headed wealthy began to yield way to poisoned-minded, literally twisted predators of the Mr. Potter variety.

Though Raimi claims to have written Drag Me to Hell before the current economic crisis, it is virtually impossible not to see a reflection of our current crisis in the character of Christine Brown, the loan officer who is, in the end, dragged to aigtch eeee double hockey sticks. The plot, for those who have not seen it, involves a loan officer who denies a gypsy woman (who lives in modern Los Angeles) a third extension on her mortgage payment. The gypsy woman falls to her knees, begins kissing the skirt of the loan officer, begs Ms. Brown to reconsider. Christine panics and she calls security. Later that night, the gypsy woman mugs her in the parking garage near the bank and places a curse upon her. Ring-like, Christine will be tormented for three days by a demonic spirit. At the end of the tormenting process, she'll be offed and dragged, well, you know.

Raimi has actually said that he wanted to make sure that Christine's "crime" was disproportionate to the punishment she faced. This was necessary, he claims, in order to ensure viewer sympathy with her.

I believe, however, this doesn't give his character enough credit. Christine's "crime" is not a minor act; it's no crime at all. It isn't, I think, even a moral infraction. Some critics have decided that Christine is an avatar for the wildly irresponsible financial institutions that have led us into the current financial meltdown. This shows both a profoundly limited understanding of the financial monkey business that took place on Wall Street and grotesquely stunted notion of morality. According to the film, the bank's handled the gypsy's mortgage for several years. By defaulting on payments twice and then asking for third extension, it is the gypsy who is acting in bad faith. She was happy to take the bank's money, using her house as collateral. But now that she can't hold up her end of the deal, she wants the bank to essentially give her a free pass. She wants the bank to be okay with unilaterally breaking a contract. Christine suggests to alternatives to the gypsy's financially untenable situation, both of which are rejected by the gypsy out of pride – a pride she then throws away to beg for help, a pride she then accuses Christine of stealing.

In contrast, what was going on in at various banks and other financial institutions was that loan officers, not unlike Christine but on a much larger scale, were bending the loan guidelines to quickly store up the mortgages as assets that could then be used as the basis for derivatives – a sort of pseudo-insurance in which parties essentially make bets on whether or not loans will default. In theory, the bank doesn't want the loan to default, because then they get the loan payments and the derivative payments, without ever having to pay anything out except the original loan. In practice, the short-term gain on derivatives was so attractive that banks rushed to make as many housing loans as they could, taking insane risks on truly bad loans. These bad loans were then packaged up as more derivative fodder. When the crappy loans feel through, not only were the banks out the original loan, but they also had to pay off the derivative bets. These problems were further compounded by what we now understand to be the deliberate falsification of the value of the assets at the base of the derivatives.

If that second part is convoluted, here's the short story: If banks had been rigorous about administering their loans – which includes not giving loans to people who can't afford to pay them back and refusing to carry the burden of potentially toxic assets in the form of shaky loans – then none of this crap would have gone down. If Wall Street had been more like Christine Brown, we wouldn't have the current financial crisis. But Drag Me to Hell touches a populist nerve by showing what Americans have always secretly felt: Debt (if not credit, which we love like crack) is a conspiracy of heartless bankers. We enjoy making beds, but we sure to hate to lie in them.

If the lightly likeable Drag Me to Hell gets a footnote in film history, it might we be as the opening shot in what I can only imagine will be a slowly growing stream on increasingly shrill populist screeds against the evils of banking.

3. The Hollywood Evil Dead

While Drag Me to Hell definitely aspires to the slapstick spirit of Raimi's Evil Dead flicks, there's something bloodless (in a literal and emotional way) about the undertaking. The film feels like Raimi is copying his earlier work. Instead of evoking the spirit of the Evil Dead films, he makes contextless winks and nods to his fanbase. References to cabins in the woods followed with the line "there's trees, you'll love it" are meant as sops to the insider.

This is faded-copy-of-the-original feeling is further reinforced by the PG-13 bloodlessnes of the film. Other than a particularly violent projectile nosebleed, there's not much in this film to remind us of the fact that Raimi once used a literal geyser of blood for a sight gag. Certainly, this isn't to suggest that "real horror needs extreme bloodshed" or some such. Raimi was always more goofy than gory. Rather, I think it is a sign of how happy Raimi is to repackage his old material as mainstream stuff. Raimi's still big on geysers, but now they're CGI'ed puke-goo or a vomited up cat.

Finally, there are the product placements. BMW, iPhones, and even Mrs. Fields Cookies get bizarrely intrusive close ups. Despite the theme of "returning to the purity of horror" theme, it seems Raimi's picked up some particularly unseemly mainstream habits and the return to horror didn't help him shed them.


Anonymous said...

"Rather, I think it is a sign of how happy Raimi is to repackage his old material as mainstream stuff. Raimi's still big on geysers, but now they're CGI'ed puke-goo or a vomited up cat."

Interesting what counts as mainstream stuff nowadays.

CRwM said...


He got beat to the punch by the far inferior "Haunting in Connecticut" which had its child hero puke up semi-sentient ectoplasm pseudo-pods. There's the black death vomit of "Sixth Sense." Heck, even mainstream comedies are full of folks giving us cinematic representations of the technicolor yawn: from Team America to Observe and Report. The ratings board clearly thinks that vomit is a-okay in their books, so if you're a horror director, just CGI your "blood" a greenish yellow, call it vomit, and you're getting PG-13. Puke is hot!

Sasquatchan said...

I blame the Exorcist for starting that trend ;)

(Glad you got out to see the flick, seemed economy had you down when I asked if you'd review it last..)

spacejack said...

Just saw this last night!

With all the rave reviews I went in with impossibly high expectations. It wasn't a bad film but at the end of it I kind of felt like it would be the sort of thing I'd like to see as an episode of Masters of Horror (if MoH had been a better series.)

The main problem for me was that it wasn't all that scary - it seemed to rely mostly on old-timey horror effects like loud noises, blowing wind, rattling chandeliers and hallucinations.

My other problem was that I didn't think the leads were all that great, especially the boyfriend. There seemed to be zero chemistry between the two.

Which might all kinda work if you look at Christine as an "evil bitch" (the girl behind us in the theatre said at the end: "Hooray, the evil bitch is dead!")

So I started thinking about the film as something that was flipping our expectations: the protagonist wasn't actually supposed to be sympathetic (evicts an old woman to advance her career, kills her own cat, considers sending an old guy on an oxygen tank to hell, maintains a bland relationship to marry into money.)

Was her punishment proportionate to her "crimes"? Well, no, but in horror films it never is :)

But now I see Raimi's own quote contradicts that theory. So... huh.

Anonymous said...

I disagree about Christine / point 2 - her crime isn't that she doesn't extend the loan (neither a crime nor a moral infraction in itself as you point out), it is that she acts out of self-interest and in oder to advance her career, despite being fully aware that her acts are not in accordance with her own moral beliefs. Whether the bank was right or Mrs. Ganesh had a point doesn't really matter at all, I think the implication is that she would have made the same decision anyways, since her own interests take precedence over the question what's wrong and what's right and that is where her "crime" lies.

I don't think any comment on the financial crisis was intended, but even if we read the set-up that way, I think Raimi makes a fairly good point, precisely by avoiding getting dragged into any ethical questions concerning the actual loan business and concentrating on individual/personal ethics instead.

CRwM said...


That's a great point.

I think we agree on allot of things here. Mostly, neither you nor I think (and Raimi would seem to confirm this) that the film was about the current financial crisis. My statement was simply meant to point out that I believe critics are viewing it through the lens of the current banking disaster and that neither the filmmaker nor the film really support the comparison.

That said, I don't know that the film makes a convincing case that Ms. Brown does not, in fact, follow the pangs of inner conscience.

In the diner scene, for example, Brown is not only unable to unload the cursed button onto an innocent, but she finds herself incapable of gifting the curse even to a guilty douchebag. This would definitely be in her self-interest (not only professionally, but in terms of survival), but she isn't able to bring herself to do something she truly believes is wrong.

This suggests to me that Brown doesn't believe that denying the loan is wrong. She's uncomfortable about it and wishes that she wasn't in the position she's in, but sometimes doing the responsible thing doesn't make one feel good.

One could argue that the curse has taught Brown something about following one's ethical compass, but then one imagines that she'd then be more resigned to accepting her fate as just punishment for an evil deed - something she does not do. Raimi would have actually had to develop Brown's character arc more to sell me on that concept.

There is, to counter my argument, the "I knew it was wrong" line she gives right before she's dragged of to you know where. Honestly, that seemed like a tacked on thing to justify the (literally) hellish scene that follows immediately thereafter to the viewers, giving us a sense that, in some way, Christine deserved it. To me, anyway, it seemed as artificial as the anvil Ms. Brown has inexplicably hanging in her garage.

In defense of the film, one could say that this ambiguity was meant to communicate the complexity of the moral situation Brown is in. Honestly, I think Raimi didn't much care. What happens to Christine happens because the story needs a reason to curse her that won't make us instantly and fully think she completely deserves it.

The isn't a major flaw in the film or anything. Drag Me to Hell is hardly intended as Raimi's philosophical meditation on the conflict between legalistic notions of morality and more abstract notions of a innate moral sense. I brought it up simply because I think people who are using it as a stick to beat the banks with are not really paying attention to the film.