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Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – Drag Me to Hell (2009)

My notes on Drag Me to Hell (2009)

Christine Brown (Alison Lohmann), a loan officer in a Los Angeles bank, refuses – for sound personal, professional and aesthetic reasons – to grant an extension on a mortgage payment owed by Mrs Ganush (Lorna Raver), a gypsy crone with false teeth and a literally evil eye. When Mrs Ganush goes down on her knees and begs, Christine ‘shames’ the hag and winds up cursed – she is attacked in the garage bu the surprisingly sinewy old woman and has a breathed-on button returned to her, which means a ‘lamia’ from Hell will persecute her invisibly for a few days and then bear her away to eternal torment.

Sam Raimi, who co-wrote with his brother Ivan and directed, returns to mid-budget return to Tales From the Crypt-style horror after a sojourn in blockbuster superheroics with an entry in a tiny sub-genre of films about folks under curses. It gives the nod to notable precursors Night of the Demon (from MR James’s ‘Casting the Runes’), in the business about giving the victim a set time to stew before the fiend is made manifest and back-and-forth about the cursed object (Christine can shift the curse simply by giving the button away), and Stephen King’s ‘Richard Bachman novel Thinner (filmed by Tom Holland) with its unembarrassed use of the ‘gypsy curse’ trope. However, contemporary audiences are more likely to see this as a broader take on the curses found in Asian ghost movies and their American remakes (Raimi’s Ghost House pictures were behind the US Grudges). There’s an explicit detour into Ring territory in a fake climax as Christine digs up the dead Mrs Ganush during a thunderstorm and tries to assuage the demon by shoving an envelope down her throat – as in Ring/The Ring, she makes a vital error in reading the rules of the curse which means that, after a brief seemingly happy ending, the lamia bites back with even more fury.

It has the feel of something which could easily have been trimmed down to twenty minutes and stuck together with some other stories and a frame with Peter Cushing reading Tarot cards on a train or running an antique shop. Heavily signposted business about getting the envelope with the button mixed up with an identical envelope containing a coin from the heroine’s boyfriend’s collection too obviously strings out much of the third act. The film also has to overegg the protagonist’s character to keep us on her side – she’s unsure in her relationship with a loving if glib pyschology professor boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) because his parents think he could do better and edgy at work because a rival (Reggie Lee) is toadying to her boss (David Paymer) to beat her out for a promotion, and has neuroses to do with being born on a farm, once being overweight, having to learn to lose a non-specific rural accent and being mistaken for a secretary or a bank teller. Mrs Ganush is a comical monster, who leaks goo from her mouth as she gums the heroine and steals sweeties from the bank’s courtesy bowl, and clearly relishes the thought of taking out her miseries on someone chosen almost at random – being almost as actively violent after death, as Christine tangles with her corpse by falling over it when she barges into the family wake or tussles with it in a muddy grave. It would carry more emotional weight if the lead character were a heartless bitch but reformed Scrooge-style under the pressure of the supernatural death sentence and the witch weren’t such a fairytale monster – but this isn’t that kind of a horror film, and delivers instead a PG-13-level thrill ride with a side order of gruesome black humour. It holds back on a few things that might compromise the teen-appeal rating (a cat is killed offscreen), but still manages to pop eyeballs, spew bodily gunge, get icky with maggots and flies and throw as much at the petite blonde Lohman as Raimi tossed at Bruce Campbell in the Evil Dead sequels.

The process of Christine’s torment, exacerbated by Clay’s calm and wry rationality, runs through Entity-style battering by an invisible bruiser and breakdowns as she spouts blood from her nose over her boss or cracks up completely during a farcically excruciating meal with Clay’s parents (Chelcie Ross, Bonnie Aarons) to increasingly desperate consultations with a psychic (Dileep Rao) who is ambiguously helpful but cagey and an exorcist (Adriana Barraza) out to settle a long feud with the lamia set up in the prologue. Christine reluctantly sacrifices her cat, which fails to buy off the lamia, and an exorcism attempt involving a goat and a medium devolves into an Evil Dead-style display of cackling levitation and general sound and fury – but the home stretch harps on morality as the heroine finds she can’t even bring herself to pass on the deadly envelope to her thoroughly weaselly workplace rival. Drag Me to Hell keeps hitting the audience with scary sights and sounds, on the ghost train principle of throwing a ‘boo’ or an ‘uck’ in every couple of minutes, but there’s a slight mismatch between the ruthlessness of its storyline and the generally soft-centered, fun style of multiplex creepshow.

Discussion

One thought on “Film review – Drag Me to Hell (2009)

  1. David Hyman Unsatisfactory, tonally mismatched, vapid leads, too many bases to be covered, and a strung-out final stretch. I hoped that the presence of the old 60s/70s (?) Universal ident was the precursor to something closer in style and tone to early 70s possession movies like ‘The Mephisto Waltz’ or ‘The Possession Of Joel Delaney’, so what ensued was a real letdown.

    Richard Harland Smith >>Unsatisfactory, tonally mismatched, vapid leads, too many bases to be covered, and a strung-out final stretch.<< But enough of my first marriage. Rick Squires I don't care. It still has to be better than anything that hack Eli Roth can vomit up on the screen. Ken Kupstis Ummmm, so, lame or watchable? (In other news, a female Scottish horror writer whose name escapes me for the moment had one of her novels FURNACE supposed to be made into a feature film, where a trucker is cursed/stalked by a fire elemental...would LOVE to see that one.) Ken Kupstis And Justin Long's a PSYCHOLOGY PROFESSOR? He's 17 years old, for God's Sake (yet a fairly decent actor, from what I've seen). Kim Newman I vote for watchable. And Muriel Gray's name doesn't escape me. Ken Kupstis MURIEL GRAY!!! That's it...Thank you, sir! Robert Bailey "Furnace"? It borrows many elements from "Night of the Demon" (based on "casting the runes" by M R James) but I agree - it would make an excellent film. The last scene, where the hero uses his intelligence under adverse circumstances, is superb. Chris Cooke Gypsy stuff gets my back up these days as they appear to be a race apart and, through mindless stereotyping, to allow lazy writers a short cut to starting a story rolling... you can't have sinister Hindu's (as in a Kolchak episode and numerous 70's, mystic obsessed horrors where Asia indicated some arcane evils) but gypsies are endlessly caricatured now-a-days... though this still sounds like the opening of Thinner tied with the James tale... Ken Kupstis BTW, that Kolchak episode ("Horror In The Heights") was possibly the best episode in the series. I'm amazed nobody else has written about the Rakshasa...it'd make a great film for the Bollywood audience. Chris Cooke I half agree with you re Horror In The Heights, though there's something perverse about characters 'browning up' to play restaurant managers, the film has a very telling obsessive distrust of foreign food which is developed in an amusing way - I prefer the episode The Youth Killer and the Ripper for more obvious horror-based shenanigans, but I like They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be... for it's proto-X-Files story telling... Richard Harland Smith "The Vampire" remains a tent pole for me, on the strength of that actress, whose portrayal of a completely feral being was, is, and will be forever unforgettable. Watching the not-uninteresting but also not very good "True Blood" (first two episodes) last night really made me mourn old school vampires. Chris Cooke Agreed in many ways - Though Kolchak had already had better stories with the two feature/pilot shows - The thing I really loved about the series was his ulcerated and long-suffering boss at the paper played by Simon Oakland - Tony Vincenzo, always purple with rage! Didn't this start off because of the dodgy Gypsy stereotyping in DRAG ME TO HELL? Kim Newman Much as I love the performances, characters, weird vision, music and general tone of KOLCHAK, I think the series was hamstrung by its almost ritual adherence to the plot structure of THE NIGHT STALKER. Somehow, I don't mind the way every COLUMBO episode hews to the same narrative pattern - it's even part of the appeal - but in KOLCHAK, especially if watched as a DVD box set, I find myself desperate for some variation. Kim Newman On Gypsies: are Americans like Stephen King and Sam Raimi aware of just how virulent prejudice against Romany peoples is in some parts of Europe? I get the impression they still have the vision of THE WOLF MAN in their minds, since they're the sort of well-intentioned souls who'd never hang their stories on, say, an evil old black Voodoo priestess or a Fu Manchu-type yellow peril stereotype. And F. Paul Wilson wrote a Rakasha novel, THE TOMB. Ken Kupstis I think the show would have been better if Darren McGavin had gotten the creative control he wanted--he wanted to make it scarier, but his producers wanted to make it more comedic. And he should have retained Richard Matheson, but he used newer writers to save costs. Anyway, "The Knightly Murders", "The Trevi Collection" and "Demon In Lace" are my all-time favorites. I would have liked the new version of 'Night Stalker' to continue for a bit longer, just to see what they'd come up with, but a lot of the stories weren't that great. Ken Kupstis Awesome...I've got to get it, I thought it was a sequel to THE KEEP so I passed it by...F. Paul is great, I love all the Repairman Jack stories. Chris Cooke Great news re F Paul Wilson, Kim, thanks for the tip - we shall all read this... I am not sure how bad racism against gypsies in the US is, but it's probably as insidious as it is in the UK - The doc American Gyspsy looked at US Gypsy culture - King of the Gypsies, a popular mid 70's TV movie I think, was largely stereotypical, but there was a more recent feature but for the life of me the title has escaped me... I agree re the format of Kolchak as a series - by the last few episodes it really does look as if no one is too bothered at all and episodes like The Sentry are really threadbare and repetitive. Richard Harland Smith Gypsies were the villains on a recent episode of CRIMINAL MINDS. Anyone else read Isabel Fonseca's BURY ME STANDING? Chris Cooke Criminal Minds always struck me as a particularly reactionary piece of television, so it's no surprise - the Fonseca book sounds great - I will order a copy. I find it hard to find a single feature film where Gypsies aren't criminals - Pavee Lakeen (The Traveller Girl) from Ireland is remarkable and moving and totally different from these other films in opening up traveller life in an honest way - and is brilliantly acted from within the travelling community. Settled gyspsies are also stereotyped and hated, but at least this Irish film is obsessed with realist detail that reminds me of Satyajit Ray Richard Harland Smith >>criminal Minds always struck me as a particularly reactionary piece of television<< Like most American cop shows, its raison d'être seems to be using serial murder/sex crimes as an excuse to dump research on the viewers by way of having eight cops standing around telling one another information they all should already know. The gypsy life added an extra kink, and of course at some point someone *had* to add the disclaimer that most people leading the Romani life are law-abiding. But not *these* bastards (racks shotgun)... Chris Cooke "an excuse to dump research on the viewers by way of having eight cops standing around telling one another information they all should already know" That's a great assessment of any of these shows - it's always great when Britian's newspapers employ a 'criminal profiler' and then compare their results to the real thing - as in the recent Sun story: “Was it a crime of passion? Was he chopped up to make it easier for the body to be disposed of? “Or are we witnessing a serial killer at the start of their career?” which demonstrates how pathetically wide of the mark, general and vague these people can be - and why they aren't used in the UK. Richard Harland Smith I liked the rather useless profiler on the 2nd episode of WALLANDER. Chris Cooke yeah that seemed like a good piece of writing - nothing can replace police work and detectives - it's much more watchable than people leaning against walls, looking at a slide projector or lounging in a private jet while they discuss statistics, psychological evaluations etc... it would be much more interesting if they used dowsing, crystal balls, tarot cards (a great way of profiling if you ask me), astrology and numerology... I bet their results would improve! And the TV show that does that would be far more interesting (so long as it wasn't 'Charmed'...) Richard Harland Smith I want to see that show! Mark Harmon is... THE DOWSER. Chris Cooke THE DOWSER would be a lot more interesting than the smug-fest that is THE MENTALIST! Chris Cooke He could follow Ley-Lines instead of lines of inquiry... oh dear... Anne Billson True Blood gets better as the season goes on. Richard Harland Smith It took me several episodes to get into SIX FEET UNDER, too, so I'm hopeful.

    Posted by kimnewman | April 16, 2020, 12:46 pm

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