DRAG ME TO HELL (2009): DIRECTOR SAM RAIMI

The Horror Film Project

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©2019, by M. Keith Booker

After the conclusion of the original Evil Dead trilogy with Army of Darkness in 1992, Sam Raimi was propelled to A-list status with the brilliant neo-noir film A Simple Plan (1998) and with the smash box-office success of his Spider-Man trilogy (2002–2007). He then returned to horror in 2009 with Drag Me to Hell, a film that shows considerable evolution in Raimi’s vision as a director relative to the Evil Dead films, though one that continues to show much of the same consciousness of genre conventions and willingness to push those conventions to the edge of ridiculousness and beyond. Indeed, in many ways, Drag Me to Hell is more representative of postmodernism than are the Evil Dead films, perhaps because those earlier films were at the forefront of the overtly postmodern turn in horror film, while Drag Me to Hell appeared with thirty years of postmodern horror as background. Drag Me to Hell, which features stock horror-film motifs such as a demon and a gyspy curse, is also of interest in the extent and sophistication with which it addresses contemporary economic issues, suggesting the way in which economic issues had penetrated the popular consciousness as never before, a phenomenon that is only to be expected given the near-catastrophic credit crisis of 2008, but also given the general absorption of all aspects of daily life into capitalist economic maneuvers in the era of late capitalism.

Drag Me to Hell begins with a prologue set in Pasadena in 1969 that introduces its major horror-film motifs. A small Mexican boy has been cursed after stealing a silver necklace from some gypsies. His parents rush him to a young medium, Shaun San Dena (Flor de Maria Chahua), who attempts to conduct a ritual to remove the curse, but invisible demonic forces attack and the boy is literally dragged through the floor and down to hell. The woman vows that she will meet those forces again—which she, in fact, will do later in the film.

After the opening credits, the film introduces Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), a young woman attempting to make her way in current-day Los Angeles, where she works as a loan officer at a bank, hoping for a promotion to the bank’s vacant assistant manager position. Clearly ambitious, she spends her time doing things like practicing her diction to try to remove traces of her rural background. In this sense, she is a stock film character (the innocent country girl who comes to the corrupt city with ambitious dreams of making it big), a fact that should alert us to the extent to which Drag Me to Hell, as a postmodern cultural artifact, is at least as much about other films as it is about anything in the “real” world. Of course, her dreams will meet with serious obstacles, the least of which is the fact that, in order to get the promotion, she must surpass the new guy, Stu Rubin (Reggie Lee)—who is “very aggressive” as a loan officer, but who is also male and very good at kissing up to their boss, Mr. Jacks (David Paymer). Christine’s boyfriend Clay Dalton (Justin Long[1]) has just begun a new position as an assistant professor of psychology at a local university[2], though he doesn’t exactly seem like an intellectual heavyweight. Clay’s rich, snooty parents—more stock characters from the filmic past—don’t think Christine (whom they think of as “the girl from the farm”) is good enough for him.

With this basic scenario in place, this film might have developed in the direction of screwball comedy, but instead it moves in the direction of horror as Mrs. Sylvia Ganush (Lorna Raver)—an old gypsy woman with a bad cough, a creepy eye, and really grimy fingernails—comes to the bank in an attempt to avert the repossession of her property. Christine appeals to Mr. Jacks to give Mrs. Ganush an extension, given her age and medical problems; he explains that the woman has already had two extensions and that the bank will make considerable profits from the repossession, but he leaves the decision up to Christine. Christine wants to help the woman, but she clearly regards the situation as a test to see if she has the toughness needed to handle the assistant manager position. Mrs. Ganush literally goes down on her knees to beg Christine to help prevent the loss of her home, where she has lived for thirty years, but Christine stands firm and calls security to remove the woman. Stunned, Mrs. Ganush starts to walk away, mumbling that Christine has shamed her. Then she turns violent and has to be dragged out by the security officers. Mr. Jacks compliments Christine on the way she handled the situation, clearly hinting that she might have helped her chances at the promotion.

In the light of the financial crisis of 2008 (which caused over three million people to lose their homes), the implications of this scene (in a film released in 2009) could not be more clear: banks are heartless institutions interested only in their own profits and willing to wreck the lives of innocent people in order to drive those profits higher. Those innocent people, in this case, include not only Mrs. Ganush, but Christine, a basically good (but extremely ambitious) person who feels forced to deal ungenerously with Mrs. Ganush in order to protect her own career. Banks, the film implies, turn their customers into victims and their employees into soulless mercenaries. In the meantime, Christine has initiated that the process that threatens to cause her literally to lose her soul by bringing down upon herself the gypsy curse that drives the remainder of the film.

The bulk of Drag Me to Hell deals explicitly with this curse and Christine’s attempt (with the help of Clay) to escape it. However, this opening scene in the bank is not a throwaway. It provides crucial context that underlies the meaning of the graphic (sometimes excessively so) scenes of horror that dominate the film. Annie McClanahan, in a sweeping study of the impact of the 2008 credit crisis on American culture, sees Drag Me to Hell as a prime example of the ways in which American culture has responded to the growing role played by debt in our contemporary economic life, a phenomenon that makes that life increasingly precarious—sometimes making a horror film such as Drag Me to Hell the only appropriate mode for representing the American economy in the twenty-first century.

McClanahan sees Drag Me to Hell as one of several recent horror films “that bring together fear, foreclosure, and financialized credit (143).[3] For McClanahan, these films together “register the transformation of economic uncertainty into speculative risk and refigure this risk as precarity, dispossession, and fear” (144). Later, she describes Drag Me to Hell, in particular, as “a remarkably complex meditation on the link between risky investment and the insecurity of daily life caused by the conversion of homes into collateral for securitized credit” (163). In short, the film responds to recent changes in the way home mortgages are handled by the economic system, changes that convert such mortgages into “securities,” which can then be bought and sold freely, increasing their liquidity but also increasing the incentive of mortgage lenders to make risky loans, which will then eventually be foreclosed. In short, even family homes become pure commodities, expelled from the realm of use value and into the realm of pure exchange value, home turf of late capitalism.

The fact that it attempts to cope with such serious issues might account for the fact that, in general, Drag Me to Hell is far more restrained and less comically outrageous than is the Evil Dead series.[4] However, there is at least one scene that might have been right at home in that earlier series—and one that is the comic highlight of Drag Me to Hell (if “highlight” is quite the right word). At the end of the workday, Christine goes to her car in the parking garage of the bank building. There, she is confronted by Mrs. Ganush, who seems to materialize by magic in the backseat of Christine’s car. Mrs. Ganush attacks her, leading to a cartoonishly violent fight scene in which the old woman proves able to take a surprising amount of punishment before finally removing a button from the sleeve of Christine’s jacket and placing a curse on it (in Hungarian). She then returns the button to an uncomprehending Christine, telling her, “Soon it will be you who comes begging to me.” Mrs. Ganush then disappears; a stunned Christine recovers full consciousness and finds herself alone in the garage—except for an ominous fly that buzzes around her (as a fly had buzzed around the doomed boy in the prologue).

The cursed button bears an unmistakable resemblance to a coin, and Mrs. Ganush’s placement of the button in Christine’s hand is clearly a sort of economic exchange, transferring the power of the curse to the younger woman and reminding us of the seemingly magical ability of money to transfer economic power from one person to another. Meanwhile, this button directly echoes the rare coin we have seen Christine giving Clay earlier, having plucked it out of circulation at the bank: a nearly mint 1929 “standing Liberty” quarter. This quarter, which was struck by the U.S. mint from 1916 to 1930, is greeted by Clay, an amateur film collector, with much delight—and with amazement that it could be found in open circulation at a contemporary bank. This moment captures some of the perceived magic (and complete lack of use value) of money in a capitalist economy. At the bank, this quarter had been worth exactly 25 cents, its face value as a medium of exchange. On the open coin-collectors’ market, the coin would be worth hundreds of dollars. But to Clay it is worth much more. He places it in an envelope for safekeeping and plans to add it to his collection. Removing it from circulation, he reduces its value as currency to zero. Placing it in his collection, he endows it with a fetish value on which one cannot place a monetary value.

Clay tries to comfort Christine by telling her it isn’t her fault that Mrs. Ganush is losing her home. “If you don’t pay your mortgage, you lose your house. What does this woman expect?” he shrugs. For Clay, the idea of losing one’s home of thirty years because of missing mortgage payments is simply common sense. Of course that is what will happen if one doesn’t pay one’s bills. Those are the rules of the bourgeois world in which Clay was brought up—though of course he was brought up in a privileged family for which paying bills was never a problem. Thus, for Clay, not paying one’s mortgage is a matter of irresponsibility and of following the rules of civilized bourgeois conduct, a marker of those who do no live up to the standards Clay has been taught to respect.

Unfortunately, Clay and Christine are about to leave the world of these standards in a spectacular way. Clay humors Christine’s sudden urge to have her fortune read by the “spiritual advisor” Rham Jas (Dileep Rao) when they happen to pass by his shop on the street, but he remains strongly skeptical, even sarcastic, toward the idea. But when the seer attempts to read Christine’s fortune, he sees something so dark and frightening that he leaps away from her and declines to go further, offering to refund their payment. Christine is seriously spooked by the suggestion that she might be cursed, but Clay still dismisses the whole idea as nonsense, curses being almost as inconceivable to him as not paying one’s bills. Later, when a strange force invades her house and slams Christine against the mantel, Clay assumes that she must have been assaulted again by Mrs. Ganush. He continues to seek ordinary solutions to an extraordinary situation and offers to call the police, who are there to defend people like them from people like Mrs. Ganush. That night while they sleep, another ominous fly (or perhaps the same fly) buzzes into their bedroom through a window. It lands on Christine and burrows into her mouth and down her throat, causing her to awake, gasping and coughing. When she lies back down, she finds a zombified version of Mrs. Ganush in the bed beside her instead of Clay; the zombie Ganush leaps atop Alison and vomits a disgusting stream of worms and bugs into her face. Alison awakens to find it had been a dream. More visions and strange occurrences follow, causing Christine to behave abnormally at work, including (in one of the scenes that was slightly cut in the theatrical release) spewing blood from her mouth and nose right onto Mr. Jacks, whose main reaction is to worry if he got any in his mouth.

Hoping to end the trouble, Christine goes to see Mrs. Ganush, only to find that the old woman has died, which is perhaps not surprising given the pounding she took in her battle with Christine in the parking garage. Her family and friends are conducting a wake in the house—which Christine promptly disrupts by tripping over Mrs. Ganush’s casket and sending the body tumbling into the floor, landing on top of Christine. In one of the film’s more impressive gross-out scenes, the toothless body copiously vomits a yellowish liquid into Christine’s mouth, until the onlookers at the wake are finally able to pull it off her. “You deserve everything that is coming to you,” a young relative of Mrs. Ganush ominously tells Christine.

Rham Jas continues to research the situation and concludes that Christine is being plagued by the “Lamia,” a supernatural black goat that is “only summoned by gypsies for their darkest deeds.” The Lamia, he warns Christine, will eventually come to take the soul of the owner of a cursed object that has been taken from and then returned to the intended victim. Christine realizes that he must mean the button and that she is apparently in danger of being dragged to hell. Nevertheless, as a vegetarian and animal lover, she vehemently rejects Rham Jas’s suggestion that she sacrifice a small animal to appease the spirit, though he still gives her a book of instructions for the sacrifice, just in case.

In one of the film’s more shocking turns, Christine, seemingly under assault by the Lamia (in a rather chilling sequence), turns to the extreme solution of sacrificing her small kitten, slashing it repeatedly (and bloodily) with a butcher knife (though the scene of the actual stabbing is cut from the theatrical release), then burying it in the back yard per the instructions in the book. Then, as if that weren’t horrifying enough, Christine is taken immediately afterward by Clay for dinner with his family at their palatial estate. It is the first time she has met the parents, though she is already aware of their condescending attitude.

The evening begins as one would expect: the door is answered by a servant, of course, but Clay’s impeccably dressed parents, Leonard and Trudy (Chelcie Ross and Molly Cheek), then come to the foyer to greet them. Clay and Leonard (whom Clay addresses as “Sir”) go off to get wine, while Christine presents Trudy with a cake she made for the occasion. “A harvest cake,” she explains. The mother doesn’t miss the opportunity: “Is that something you would make on a farm?” she snipes. Christine responds with a bit too much information about farm life; Trudy takes the cake and carries it away as distastefully if she were carrying a plate of excrement. Even the family cat, Hecuba, hisses violently as Christine walks by, almost as if it knows what happened to the kitten.

As they sit down to dinner, Trudy resumes her subtle assault: “I just think that job of a bank teller must be so difficult, with all that counting and repetition. It must get very tedious.” Clearly, Trudy has no idea what it is like to work for a living, but Christine quickly sets her straight by discussing her work as a loan officer. She is currently handling the biggest business loan that her branch has ever handled, a complicated transaction involving a medical supply company that was “looking to expand but didn’t have the liquidity. So I met with their CFO and presented a formula for restructuring some of their long-term debt.” As McClanahan notes in her discussion of the film, Drag Me to Hell employs an unusual amount of technical financial jargon, and this is a good example, though it is not surprising, given Christine’s profession.

What is crucial about this moment, however, is the way it resonates with Clay’s earlier declaration that people who don’t pay their bills should expect to have to deal with the consequences. The whole idea behind “restructuring long-term debt” is to allow corporate entities to operate with greater flexibility precisely by escaping the consequences of not repaying their debts as originally agreed upon. The point is clear: in late capitalist America, poor people like Mrs. Ganush have to pay their bills or else. Corporations, however, are granted the opportunity run up even more debts without repaying the debts they already have, resulting in a sort of legal pyramid scheme that is in danger of eventual collapse—which is what happened during the crisis of 2008.

No one at the table, of course, questions the rectitude of Christine’s financial maneuvers with the medical supply company; Leonard, in fact, seems quite impressed, while Trudy simply changes the subject to inquire about Christine’s mother. Christine explains that her mother is a reclusive alcoholic, whereupon Trudy announces that she is impressed by Christine’s honesty and declares that she much prefers Christine over Clay’s dreadful last girlfriend. Things seem to be taking a turn for the better, if in an awkward way, but then dessert is served: Christine’s harvest cake. The cake seems to be a hit, but then a creepy eyeball appears in the middle of Christine’s slice; Christine stabs the eyeball with her fork, causing blood and other fluids to spurt, then ooze from the cake.

There are, in fact, lots of liquids (especially bodily fluids) spewing and flowing in this film, as if to echo Christine’s professional concern with the liquidity of her clients. In any case, the situation at the dinner party rapidly deteriorates as Christine starts to choke, then coughs up the fly, after which she begins to see and hear things (related to another Lamia attack) that no one else present seems to see or hear. Christine screams at the Lamia and hurls her glass across the room at it. Trudy concludes that Christine is a “sick girl” and urges Clay not to follow as Christine rushes from the house, headed back once again to consult Rham Jas. He warns her that she is running out of time and that he cannot help her himself. He knows someone who might be able to help, but it will be dangerous for her and she will want to be well paid. He suggests that the suspiciously round sum of $10,000 might do the trick, once again suggesting the way in which, in this film, everything is ultimately reduced to the status of an economic transaction.

Christine doesn’t have $10,000, but she does have a job and an impending promotion, so she asks Mr. Jacks for an advance against the increased salary of her new promotion. He informs her that the big deal with the medical supply company has fallen through and that the promotion is going to go to Stu. Christine is clearly cursed. She rushes home to gather up items to hock for cash, then undergoes another Mrs. Ganush attack, which ends when she drops an anvil on the old woman, squashing her head and causing the old woman’s blood, tissue, and eyeballs to be propelled square into Christine’s face. It’s another visual worthy of the maker of the Evil Dead series, though it’s apparently just imaginary: Mrs. Ganush and her tissues suddenly disappear from the scene, leaving no trace.

Christine sinks into despair when she is only able to come up with $3800 for the pawned items: this is a horror film in which (as in the real world of late capitalism) one of the greatest horrors is a lack of cash. Clay comes through for her, though, and pays the $10,000, because he knows it’s important to her, even though he still doesn’t know if he believes it will help. He’s a nice guy—just a little unimaginative. They drive over in his respectable, responsible Prius to the old house, now a bit rundown, where the young boy had been taken in the film’s prologue. We know, of course, from the outcome of the prologue that there is a good chance this won’t end well for Christine. Rham Jas and Shaun San Dena (Adriana Barrazza), now grown old, greet Christine at the house, where the old woman has waited for forty years for another chance to defeat the Lamia, suggesting that this time she will be better prepared. Toward that end, she conducts a séance that, among other things, serves as a vague allegory of globalization. Shaun San Dean seems Hispanic, often shifting into Spanish when she speaks; her “nephew” and assistant, Milos (Kevin Foster), seems Slavic; Rham Jas seems ethnically Indian; and Christine is about as American as one can get. All of these gathered multicultural forces, however, are unable to defeat the Lamia, and the only real result of the séance is the death of Shaun San Dena. The curse on Christine remains intact.

Now, after all this, Rham Jas suggests that, to get rid of the Lamia, Christine just needs to get rid of the cursed button. When dealing with demons, it’s all a matter of possession, after all. So Christine puts the button in an envelope (as Clay had earlier done with the coin), which Rham Jas seals. All she has to do, he tells her, is to give the button to someone else and the curse will be lifted. The only problem is that it will be transferred to whomever receives the button from her. So she picks Stu, whom she has surmised (correctly) to be responsible for the collapse of her big loan deal. She can’t go through with it, though, and decides instead to give the button to Mrs. Ganush, which of course entails digging up the body (in another grisly scene like something from the Evil Dead films) so she can transfer the button personally. Christine barely survives the ordeal, but at least leaves Mrs. Ganush with the envelope (presumably containing the button) stuffed in her mouth.

Things suddenly begin to look up. Stu is outed for sabotaging Christine’s loan deal, and Christine is informed that the promotion is hers, after all. Christine and Clay prepare to depart by train from Union Station for a nice stay, relaxing in the countryside, before she assumes her new job. Then, Clay reveals that he found the envelope with the button in his car—apparently it had inadvertently gotten switched with the envelope bearing the coin, which is what Christine gave to Mrs. Ganush. Christine, just as he realizes, with horror, that she is officially still in possession of the button, is dragged down to hell through the train tracks as the film ends. It’s a sort of O. Henry twist ending, but with a definite dark turn.

This shocking ending is surprisingly lacking in emotional impact, however, and not just because Christine (as an ambitious bank officer willing to hurt others to advance her own career) is a flawed heroine. Indeed, the emotionally flat nature of this ending is perfectly in keeping with the tone of the rest of the film. In what might be taken as an example of the “waning of affect” in postmodern culture, this ending is presented almost like a final joke, with little emotional charge—just as virtually every scene in the film has jokey aspects to it. This ending is also one of the aspects of the film that most clearly marks it as postmodern in another sense, in that it sets Drag Me to Hell distinctly apart from the classical horror film, in which the forces of right typically win out in the end. Meanwhile, “right” typically means white, Western, and relatively affluent in such films. In this case, it is the Lamia, marked as radically Other to the rational society of the capitalist West, who triumphs. But, in a sense, Mrs. Ganush triumphs as well, not only because her curse is successfully carried out, but also because she successfully evades Christine’s attempt to turn the curse back on her.

One would think that Mrs. Ganush, as a poor, old woman who loses her home to a heartless bank, would be an object of great sympathy in the film. However, Mrs. Ganush’s old age, which presumably should make audiences sympathize with her, is actually coded negatively in the film, in which she is repeatedly associated with the disturbing, physical aspects of aging. Items such as her ruined eye, her wet hacking cough, her false teeth (which have a lot of trouble staying in her mouth), and her overgrown blackened fingernails are all abject aspects of old age that make Mrs. Ganush an essentially uncomfortable, even repulsive, reminder of our own mortality.

In addition, as a gypsy, Mrs. Ganush is an ethnic Other who is clearly presented as the antagonist of the fresh-faced Christine, who has the look of an all-American girl. Further, Christine has worked her way up from humble origins, so that she is multiply coded in the film as someone with whom audiences are expected to sympathize, despite her own questionable activities. Gypsies (or, more correctly, the Romani people[5]), of course, are one of the most persecuted groups in world history, having been treated as objects of fear and suspicion for centuries. They were, for example, just as despised by the German Nazis as were the Jews. Gypsies have also long been the objects of negative stereotypes in the popular Western mind; they have long been associated, for example, with a penchant for theft (including the stealing of babies). 

In terms of the portrayal of Mrs. Ganush in Drag Me to Hell, what is most relevant is the traditional association of gypsies with a variety of occult practices, including the placing of curses on their enemies. This aspect of gypsy lore is evoked in the film’s prologue, where gypsy magic brings about the doom of a frightened, young boy, immediately suggesting the sinister nature of that magic and preparing audiences of the film to regard gypsy magic as evil. And, of course, horror film audiences have also been alerted to the potential evils of gypsy magic in a number of previous horror films featuring gypsies. It is, after all, a gypsy fortune-teller (played by none other than Bela Lugosi) who initially infects Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) with the curse of lycanthropy in the Universal classic The Wolf Man (1941). However, the predecessor film most relevant to Drag Me to Hell is probably Tom Holland’s Thinner (1996), based on a novel of the same name by Stephen King. This film (which is actually far more sympathetic to its gypsies than is Drag Me to Hell)not only features a gypsy curse placed on the central character in an act of revenge but also includes the motif that the curse can only be lifted by transferring it to someone else.

By overtly basing its curse theme on established stereotypes about the Romani people, while making no effort whatsoever to challenge the validity of those stereotypes, Drag Me to Hell certainly falls short of enlightenment in its representation of ethnic and cultural Others. (And, of course, one might argue that there is clear ageism at work in the film’s depiction of Mrs. Ganush’s geriatric condition as physically gross.) In this sense, the representation of Mrs. Ganush in the film is clearly irresponsible, however playful it might be. It is, after all, clearly inappropriate to have fun at the expense of others, especially others who have already been mistreated by history. One of the most postmodern aspects of Drag Me to Hell, however, is the way that it nudgingly congratulates its audiences on being too sophisticated to be influenced by such stereotypical representations of gypsies and old people, just as Scream assumes that its audiences will not be fooled by stereotypical representations of young slasher-film fans.

Read within the context of postmodern film, the perpetuation of stereotypes in Drag Me to Hell can be seen simply as an example of postmodern pastiche, as a case of borrowing images and motifs from the past without any real consideration of what those images and motifs might have meant in their original context. One cannot really expect Drag Me to Hell effectively to challenge the stereotypes upon which it draws, because it is interested in those stereotypes only as cinematic images, not as representations of the real world. Mrs. Ganush is a movie gypsy and should not be taken as suggestive of the way real gypsies (or real old people) think or behave—just as the lack of emotional charge to Christine’s demise can surely be attributed in part to the fact that she is a movie all-American girl and never quite comes off as representative of a real person. Appropriate or not, this re-use of stock images from the past (including images of human beings)—largely stripped of emotional, historical, or political connotations—is typical of postmodern culture as a whole, as is the final assumption in Drag Me to Hell that its audience will be smart enough to understand what is going on and to get the joke.

WORK CITED

McLanahan, Annie. Dead Pledges: Debt, Crisis, and Twenty-First-Century Culture. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018.

NOTES


[1] At the time, Long was best known as the spokesperson for Apple, Inc. in their series of “I’m a Mac” television commercials. In a moment of postmodern self-referentiality, Long is seen using Apple products at several points in the film.

[2] The university scenes were shot on the campus of California State University, Northridge (in Los Angeles), though the university where Dalton works is unnamed in the film.

[3] The other films McClanahan discusses are Mother’s Day (2010), Crawlspace (2013), and the Hong Kong film Dream Home (2010).

[4] This is especially true of the original theatrical release version of the film; it is currently available on video in both that version and in an unrated director’s cut, the latter of which contains some brief, over-the-top material that was deemed too extreme for theatrical audiences.

[5] The term “gypsy,” often used with derogatory connotations, is a corruption of “Egyptian”; it came to be applied to the Romani people in the Middle Ages, when many in Europe thought (wrongly) that they were wandering Egyptians.