2009 was kind of a dodgy year for horror (Birdemic! The Friday the 13th remake with stoner Jason! Lesbian Vampire Killers!) but amidst the money-raking studio fare a few gems stood out, not least of which was Sam Raimi fan favorite, Drag Me to Hell. Celebrating its tenth anniversary this week, the flick has aged mostly well, but its seemingly feminist credentials and potentially offensive gypsy stereotypes taste a little sourer in 2019.
Further exemplifying that times were different, my DVD copy of the film (purchased from a local rental store that was going out of business at the time) boasts a pull-quote proclaiming the film as “the scariest movie of the decade” according to…Zoo. Those lucky enough to live outside of Europe won’t be familiar with the truly revolting lads mag, thankfully now defunct, but suffice to say it was about boobs, beer, and beating women up. Okay, fine, it wasn’t explicitly about that last one, but the implication was there.
Nowadays, a film touted by a lads’ mag as the scariest of the year, even, would be, understandably, avoided at all costs by all those not bearing the initials “MRA” in their Twitter usernames. Back in 2009, however, this was seen as a ringing endorsement for the latest effort from Raimi, he of Evil Dead and Spider-Man fame. Scripting with his brother and frequent collaborator, Ivan, the great man has a lot of fun here doing what he does best. That he would follow Drag Me to Hell up with the scary in an entirely different way Oz the Great and Powerful almost beggars belief.
SFX maestro Greg Nicotero (who worked on Evil Dead II) handles the yucky stuff, meaning Raimi’s penchant for gross-out, generously oozing body horror is front and center throughout. Drag Me to Hell isn’t necessarily a frightening movie, at least not in the traditional sense, but it’s consistently disgusting and tense. The super strong opening sequence establishes some of the mythology, setting up the idea that there’s something otherworldly lurking in Pasadena aside from Sheldon Cooper and his annoying friends.
Whether the personification of a Roma gypsy as an evil entity bent on punishing a white woman is dodgy or not (and it probably is), it’s refreshing to see an elderly woman as the villain rather than the same ol’, same ol’ creepy dude. Early on, antagonist Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) hocks up a disgusting glut of phlegm into a tissue in front of the whole bank, hinting at all the gross bodily fluids she’ll cover poor Christine in by the end of the movie. From bugs to embalming fluid, there’s no end to the gunk flowing out of Ganush.
The premise sees Alison Lohman (who will always be McKenna from Tucker to me) as kindly bank worker Christine, who is tasked with proving herself worthy of a promotion over a male colleague by laying down the law with Ganush, looking for another extension on a loan. Christine puts her foot down and is punished for her ambition with a literal curse (she later reveals to boyfriend Clay that she could’ve given Ganush another extension but chose not to). Everybody underestimates her but she also kind of underestimates herself.
Much has been made of Drag Me to Hell‘s supposedly feminist credentials, but the message of the movie is tangled up in a lot of dodgy victim-blaming. There’s also the inherent weirdness of Christine being an ex-fat girl, something that’s communicated the very first time we meet her, as she stares longingly through the window of a bakery. Later, she’ll cry while eating a gigantic bucket of ice cream (ah, America). It’s not funny or clever and adds nothing to her character. If anything, it makes her appear pathetic and weak, rather than someone we can get behind.
What happens to Christine is actually really unfair, too, and the revelation in the final act that she could’ve helped Mrs. Ganush but chose not to seems to suggest she deserved it. Is she a victim of her own empathy? What’s the message here — don’t fight for the promotion you know you’re entitled to lest you look mean and end up cursed? Maybe, ten years ago, it was enough to just have a female lead, but looking back Drag Me to Hell seems pretty backwards in its representation.
At least Christine has a sweet, and consistently supportive boyfriend in the form of Justin Long’s Clay (side note: do more horror, Justin Long — this, Yoga Hosers, and Tusk are simply not enough). Rather than accuse her of being crazy, he sticks by his lady no matter what — even when, during a dinner with his parents (the worst possible moment for a supernatural attack), she gouges a bloody eye out in her cake and freaks. We’re so preconditioned to partners turning when things get rough in horror movies that it feels downright revolutionary that Clay remains a committed, loving boyfriend.
Given the prevalence of spooky, area-specific mysticism, it’s worth noting Drag Me to Hell is incredibly strong in this regard, too. Its supernatural weirdness is keenly felt throughout, more so than in the recent, deathly boring Curse of La Llorona, which used it more as set dressing than anything else, while the seance is more tense than anything similar in The Conjuring universe. The demons, whether glimpsed in shadow or fully realized when things start to fly around the room, look considerably better here, too.
The seance is the big centerpiece of the movie, but it’s one of several all-timer set-pieces that work even better a decade later. The stapler attack in the car is terrific, and goes on much longer than you remember. Likewise, the lone jump scare in the garage is bloodcurdling, followed up by the gnarly arm-in-the-throat that rightfully formed the basis of much of the movie’s marketing material, and is only slightly let down by the one rubbish moment of CGI splatter in the whole movie.
In keeping with Raimi’s general aesthetic, Drag Me to Hell is very rough, tactile, and gruey throughout. Blood is sprayed, chunks of hair are torn out (how does Christine not end up bald?), and the fluids keep flowing right up until the rain-soaked, graveyard-set finale which finds our poor heroine saturated in mud and tussling with a corpse that somehow still wants a piece of her. Watching this movie makes you want to take a shower (albeit not in the same way The Human Centipede, also released in 2009, does).
A decade on, it’s difficult to place Drag Me to Hell within the greater horror pantheon, or even Raimi’s work in general. It has all the hallmarks of his movies, including his beloved car, which has shown up in everything from Evil Dead to Spider-Man. The gore comes hard, fast, and gross. It’s not as funny as perhaps it could have been, or was back in 2009. Lohman, who does a great job here, has dropped off the radar in the ensuing years (IMDb lists her last appearance as of 2016). Her performance, with the benefit of hindsight, is more committed than perhaps the material deserved.
Drag Me to Hell is a weird one to revisit. It’s undoubtedly still a decent watch, powered by some brilliant SFX from Nicotero and a strong hook with a formidable villain we aren’t used to seeing in horror. The supernatural elements are stronger and more well-realized than anything The Conjuring universe has come up with in the past decade. But its premise has aged badly and the punishment of a young woman for her ambition, or her desire to treat other human beings kindly, doesn’t sit well nowadays. That ending now feels like a gut-punch rather than a rug-pull, which tells us all we need to know about the intended message.