Loan officer goes to hell

July 8, 2009

Is Drag Me to Hell--the first horror film from Evil Dead creator Sam Raimi in well over a decade--worth the wait? Adam Turl has your answer.

DRAG ME to Hell is the latest horror movie--after a 16-year hiatus from the genre--from writer-director Sam Raimi, the man responsible for the Spiderman movies as well as the classic Evil Dead films. Given the long wait, Drag Me to Hell was eagerly anticipated by fans of horror movies around the world.

I personally have been a fan of Raimi's films since I worked as a dishwasher at Denny's about 15 years ago. One night, some coworkers invited me over after work for a beer/brisket/Evil Dead marathon--and introduced me to the most hilarious horror movies I'd ever seen.

The unique blend of "excessive gore" (inspired by breakthrough horror movies of the 1970s like The Hills Have Eyes and Dawn of the Dead) and slapstick comedy (inspired by the Three Stooges) got Evil Dead (released in 1981 and made on a shoestring budget) banned in several European countries.

Evil Dead chronicled the adventures of Ash Williams (played by the brilliant character actor Bruce Campbell), an employee of the fictional big box retailer S-Mart ("Shop Smart, Shop S-Mart"). Ash's would-be romantic getaways to a rustic cabin in the woods turn into a never-ending battle with the forces of darkness, and ultimately a medieval war with an army of skeletons and corpses.

Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) ignores the pleas of Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) for an extension on her mortgage
Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) ignores the pleas of Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) for an extension on her mortgage

Evil Dead and its sequels, Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness, made Raimi's career, and the careers of producer Rob Tapert and Raimi's brothers Ted and Ivan. Raimi, along with Tapert, further developed this love of slapstick comedy combined with action in the hyper-campy television shows Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.

While his horror movies are considered almost universally brilliant by fans of the genre, there isn't much good to say about Raimi's politics. He's donated money to both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. Likewise, his plots reflect both liberal and conservative themes.

The Evil Dead series--despite the great battles with skeletons, invisible evil, possessed body parts, and walking corpses--sometimes verged on misogynous. On the other hand, in Xena: Warrior Princess, some thought the ongoing lesbian subtext of the show was a positive thing. Most of the time, there doesn't appear to be any intentional political content to Raimi's work.

That's one of the reasons his return to horror is so interesting--politically and not just for fans of horror movies. Drag Me to Hell--intentionally or not (and it probably wasn't intentional)--inserts itself into the middle of the housing crisis.

Review: Movies

Drag Me to Hell, written and directed by Sam Raimi, starring Alison Lohman.

THE MAIN character, Christine Brown (played by Alison Lohman), works as a loan officer in a bank. She is up for an assistant manager position in competition with a newer male employee, and in order to secure her promotion, under pressure from her boss, she denies a mortgage extension to an elderly woman, Mrs. Ganush (played by Lorna Raver). The elderly woman begs Brown to help, but instead, she calls security to have her removed.

With assurances from her boss that her promotion is now more or less in the bag, Brown leaves work with a spring in her step, only to be assaulted in a parking garage where she is ultimately cursed by the elderly woman. She doesn't think much of it at first, but she comes to believe, after weird things begin to happen to her, and after visiting a fortune teller, that she will be tormented by demons for three days before ultimately being drug to hell.

Raimi lets us know in the film's opening sequence that the old woman will be a gypsy. This worn-out racist stereotype is the most offensive thing in the movie. It is especially offensive given the worsening situation facing the European Roma (Gypsies) today. It is also particularly annoying--and harkens back to an era of more openly racist pre-1970s Hollywood horror films--that every person connected with "magic" or "spirits" in Drag Me to Hell is represented as an ethnic minority.

This (very big) problem aside, one has to smile at the simple (and correct) notion that kicking an elderly woman out of her house is wrong, a fact that is highlighted by the torments that plague Christine Brown.

These include projectile nose bleeding--which she does at work, leading her boss to take her promotion away--and hallucinating during a dinner with her rich boyfriend's parents, which leads them to think she is insane and unworthy of their son.

As the torments continue, she sacrifices her own pet cat in a vain attempt to make amends, and after learning that she may be able to "give the curse away" even considers giving it to an elderly man on oxygen she sees in a coffee shop.

Raimi's attempts at irony couldn't be clearer. Once cursed, Brown's initial self-serving act of denying the loan extension ultimately undermines that promotion as well as her relationship with her rich boyfriend. All the while, she continues to lose her humanity as she desperately tries to stave off her fate--killing her cat and considering the damnation of an innocent man.

The actual horror sequences in Drag Me to Hell are classic. Invisible and unusual forces assault Brown, including shadows, wind and flies. In a séance held to bring out and destroy the demon tormenting her, the demon possesses a goat (and a few other people) to hilarious effect.

The thing is, we've seen all this before, albeit with less expensive production values (but far more humor), in the Evil Dead series.

In that series, Ash doesn't sacrifice his cat (he doesn't have one around), but he does cut off his own hand (possessed by evil), does battle with it and attempts to capture it in an upside-down bucket weighted down with a copy of Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. Invisible forces scream through the woods, and corpses dance in the moonlight while mounted hunting trophies tell him he will be "dead by dawn." Just as Ash believes he has escaped the evil torturing him in Evil Dead II, he is sucked into the Middle Ages, where he must do battle with an army of the dead (in Army of Darkness).

One of the great things about those movies was that it was easy to like Ash--even when he was a creep. Here was a resourceful guy who worked at the fictional equivalent of K-Mart, engaged in an epic, slapstick battle with evil. In Drag Me to Hell, you kind of want Christine to go to hell, so it's hard to identify with her battle to avoid it.

At the end of the day, even with its larger budget, Drag Me to Hell doesn't rise to the level of Raimi's earlier horror movies. But there are 10 million people and counting who would probably like to see their mortgage loan officer go to hell. Here's a movie--made by one of the best in the horror genre--where you get to see it happen.

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