Open Your Mouth and Scream “Ahhh!”: Drag Me to Hell‘s Oral Fixation
Draconian and unforgiving, Sam Raimi’s latest film is a moral lesson drenched in pus and false sanctimony. Touted as the master’s return to horror, Drag Me to Hell assumes a sizable built-in fan base that has been waiting with baited breath since Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn for a gonzo freak out. Raimi’s calling card, The Evil Dead, was a triumph of independent filmmaking in many ways. Since unleashing his 1986 cult hit, Raimi has long since ensconced his reputation for inventive, unconventional camerawork; the film’s effects were crude but economically wondrous. Plus, the film introduced audiences to the incomparable Bruce Campbell. In 20 years, Raimi’s filmmaking has not fundamentally changed. His budgets and stars are bigger, but he’s still chasing that high, the adrenaline rush of visceral, direct cinema being injected directly into a viewer’s nervous system through the eyes and ears.
Or, perhaps, in the case of Drag Me to Hell, another orifice. Raimi shoves everything but his cock down Alison Lohman’s throat, giggling devilishly all the while. The unlikely, underage femme fatale of Matchstick Men (and leading lady of Atom Egoyan’s very adult Where the Truth Lies) has proved to be a Golden Age beauty, and Raimi delights in generously lighting her flaxen hair and wide, bright eyes, photographically romancing his ingenue before cramming all manner of vile things between her lips. Maggots, viscous saliva, flies, even an entire forearm are thrust into Lohman’s permissive jaws, all delivered with a sadistic, semi-ironic smirk. Nothing if not Freudian, the persistent oral violations point toward a larger theme: greed. Drag Me to Hell draws parallels between oral fixation, coin collecting, upward mobility, property foreclosure, and that most ancient of original sins, pride.
Beyond the excess of his fright scenes (ghosts appearing at a seance, a catfight in a tool shed, a fake-wake from a bad dream), this is one of Raimi’s most tightly constructed films — predictable and thematically consistent, if repellent. Aesop didn’t need to resort to supernaturally fetishistic vignettes of domestic abuse and carjacking to make his points; Raimi’s aspirations to be a contemporary fabulist are undercut by both his moral rigidity and blinders toward his own neurotic obsessions. If he had a firmer grip on the nuance required of good moralists and ethicists, perhaps he would have succeeded. A Simple Plan was a significant achievement, all controlled tension and desperation, with a scant few ejaculations of violence and Raimi-esque flamboyance slicing through the unraveling threads of a scheme knit around the dream of a better life.1 That dream went up in smoke, just as the dreams of Lohman’s loan officer, Christine Brown, go down in eternal flames.
When a gypsy’s entreaty to Christine for an extension on her housing loan is refused, the gypsy attacks Lohman, then curses her to be tortured and subsequently dragged to hell by a demon. The set pieces of the lamia’s vengeful assaults are technically impressive, culminating in Lohman admitting that she was wrong to humiliate the old Mrs. Ganush. Too little, too late, of course.
Instead of these horrifying attacks slowly bringing her to face her culpability, though, it is only after Christine believes she no longer faces damnation that she confesses her sin. Raimi seems to think that confessing once one is off the hook merits the ultimate punishment. Throughout the film, Christine’s stubborn denial of her “wrongful” actions is set up as a counterpoint to each demonic melee; if she deserves her torture, then the torture is morally justified, and the audience (and Raimi) can take pleasure in her suffering without feeling guilty. Even if she is not being set up as a villain, Christine is the agent of villainy, a cog in the great banking machine who should and could know better than to treat an old woman as she does.
In reality, the Raimis (Sam and Ivan, who cowrote the script) are the villains: justifying gratuitous brutality on the most facile excuse, for cynical, avaricious gain. If the universe were simply unfair, and Christine suffered for no reason, that would be a nihilistic worldview, to be sure, but one without disingenuous moral prescription. If Christine had actually done something wrong, that would be another thing. A just, if disproportionate vengeance would be a form of misguided justice, much like any revenge formula. Raimi does grant that Mrs. Ganush is a tremendously petty old bitch. The prologue establishes that she had previously cursed a little boy to Hell for pinching a necklace. Even so, they seem to utilize her more as a force of nature, a near-mythical refugee from a Grimm brothers folk tale who cannot be held accountable for simply perpetuating the kind of sick tribulations that all little girls and boys must face when they do something they ought not to do. In Raimi’s world, the penalty for eating the three bears’ porridge is being disemboweled and devoured — followed by a comically juvenile burp.
The problem with a disingenuous moral lesson is that instead of simply being misguided, it becomes cruel and reprehensible. In reality, Christine did the right thing. Banks remain solvent by protecting assets, and in the midst of a recession, I wouldn’t shed any tears over a vindictive old witch getting tossed out on her can when the bank needs to repossess her house to secure its investment. If she can wield the power of Hell in a matter as trivial as getting even with a bank teller who’s doing her job, she sure as that selfsame Hell can figure out how to raise a monthly loan payment.
Without the hangman’s humor, the terror experienced by Lohman’s character might be more sincere, more empathetic. While viewers may be led by the “hiyo!” finale to opine upon the striking similarity between coins and buttons, Drag Me to Hell carries on a couple Raimi in-joke traditions, such as prominently featured the beat-up ’73 Oldsmobile Delta that’s been in all of his films, and a cameo by his brother, Ted (who appears in voice only as a psychologist). Most critics seemed to appreciate Raimi letting them slip out of the noose with a wink, but that makes the whole ordeal seem more prurient. In Raimi’s universe, bad things happen to bad people — only Raimi doesn’t seem to know who the bad people truly are.
I don’t condemn moral absolutism in itself, so long as it’s fair-minded, nuanced, and thoroughly considered. After all, a line must be drawn somewhere. But Raimi’s moral paradigm is stunted somewhere in the preschool range: “Be good or the boogeyman will get you!” True goodness doesn’t flow from fear of Hell; it flows from an internal, intrinsic desire to do the right thing for its own sake, or the sake of love and compassion. Ignorance of this common tenet proves what Drag Me to Hell exists to do.
In the 1980s, for your viewing pleasure, this man flooded a basement with blood, dismembered most of his cast with gusto, and garnered no small amount of infamy with a memorable scene in which a young woman is graphically raped by the demonically-possessed vines of a forest. The very notion that Sam Raimi would employ his Evil Dead filmmaking approach to a serious moral lesson is a terror more grueling than the maximum allowable amount of personal violations he inflicts upon Lohman’s pitiable, transplanted Midwestern farm girl. The real moral lesson of Drag Me to Hell is that if you have a message to send, make sure you grab the right goddamn envelope.
- Perhaps it helped that it was written by someone else: Scott B. Smith, who also penned the novel. Smith’s odious follow-up novel, The Ruins, was recently adapted into a film, but my utter contempt for the book has prevented any interest in the film from taking root. ↩