On One Hand

June 23, 2009

Drag me to Hell is amusing but troublesome

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 3:59 pm
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From a film-critical standpoint, Drag me to Hell is entertaining. It achieves what it sets out to achieve – to be a shocking, fun, jumpy and self-satirical film. It requires a hefty dose of suspension-of-disbelief, but remains within its boundaries. Every bit of information offered early on is important later, and a rich and funny scene with the protagonist and her soon-to-be in-laws ads a familiar element to an otherwise horror film. Some parts of Drag me to Hell are so gross or playful that they’d be jarring in a serious film, but this movie is delightful for those who like gratuitous terror, green vomit and slimy mucus pouring from rotting corpses. You get the sense that the director is poking fun of other horror flicks with the utter cheesiness of some of the dialog.

The film has little literary or social value; to take anything in it seriously would mean admitting that many of the ethnic portrayals in the film are so hyperbolized in their stereotyping that it becomes problematic. Get ready for the familiar trope of wise brown-skinned people representing the mystic or supernatural, because there is a lot of it here. (See Michael Clarke Duncan as the feeble-minded yet holy giant Black prisoner in The Green Mile, Brandon Walters as the earthy, Aborigines boy in Australia or Tourism Australia’s commercial, or Gloria Foster as the all-knowing Black oracle in The Matrix trilogy to see more of what I’m talking about.) This film has an East Indian psychic as its main spiritual guide, and an even more powerful Latina psychic medium who does a dramatic spiritual battle with the antagonist demon. Meanwhile, we cannot leave out the utterly cliché curse from an old Gypsy witch with one eye, which sets the film’s plot in motion. One scene where the protagonist visits the Gypsy home is painfully stereotypical; everything you ever associated with Gypsies: a candle-lit room, boisterous laughter, copious amount of food and reveling, walls utterly covered in adornments, Eastern European iconography, framed pictures of deceased relatives set on empty table places, and huge numbers of people packed in a small space are randomly present inside the otherwise-inconspicuous home. There is even someone playing a fucking Gypsy Violin in there while they eat dinner, for chrissakes.

Every character seems to be enveloped in a cliché social archetype; the young university professor boyfriend who is a rationalist and initially dismissive of his girlfriend’s interest in the supernatural, the grotesquely-wealthy, self-absorbed and restrained parents who live in an immaculate home and want their son to marry into high society, the boss figure, played by a Jewish actor, who is fixated on nothing but the bottom line, the career-hungry but groveling Asian who will do anything for a promotion is the protagonists main competitor at work, and the once-chubby former farm girl who wants nothing but to prove herself. And lets not forget our two main psychics, who are familiar with this kind of gypsy curse, and turn to esoteric books to inform us everything we need to know about every kind of supernatural being or phenomenon.

The film is fun if you’re willing to laugh at it, with spine-tingling demon scenes and lots of startles. But I’m not a film critic – I wouldn’t post an entry here to discuss a film from the standpoint of is it entertaining or not.

What moved me in Drag me to Hell is the depraved immorality of the universe itself. The ultimate premise of the film is grotesque: it accepts a Christian-Islamic version of an eternal hell of flames and lava, but hell is not where a person goes because of evil deeds or even lack of faith; in this film, you go to hell because you are the owner of a cursed object you don’t even know is cursed, and three days after obtaining said object you are pulled down alive into the fire. What bothers me most is how lightly the idea of going to hell is taken in a film that is ultimately meant to be amusing and funny.

That’s why Drag me to Hell is so troublesome, whether you see that troublesomeness as a good thing or a bad thing. I can tell you without spoiling the plot that at least one innocent person does get “dragged to hell” in this film, in the very beginning – a young Mexican boy, not even ten years old, who, too young to even comprehend what he was doing, “stole” a necklace from some Gypsies and was not allowed to give it back. It is 30 years before the rest of the film’s plot takes place, and introduces the psychic Shaun San Dena, who calls after the demon that they will meet again after it successfully claims the terrified young boy.

This film is like a cross between a traditional horror films and films that portray epic spiritual battles between heaven and hell, like The Prophesy and Constantine – each with its own theological universe – except that Drag me to Hell battles the forces of hell with no theological universe beyond a viewer’s speculation and no explanation of good. Throughout the film there is no mention of whether or not God exists, or why there is no good force that can overpower this particular demon. There is no mention of why the lamia (the evil demon that fetches the miserable souls) is allowed to travel to and from hell but the human inhabitants are stuck there for eternity. There is no explanation as to why demons, who are themselves revealed to be somewhat mortal, lack infinite power but hell itself contains infinite power to trap forever the people the demons catch. There is no explanation as to how it is different being pulled there alive through a portal in the ground than to go there after death as consistent with traditional theology.

I’m rather shocked that the film got away with being rated PG-13. If full-frontal-nudity or bloody violence is considered too traumatizing for young children to handle, then surely the thought of someone their age being sucked down to burn for eternity is more likely to give them nightmares. The most disturbing movie clip of my entire childhood was the Hell scene from All Dogs Go to Heaven and this one was far, far worse.

There are a few ironies in the plot that the writers simply overlooked. It is strange that a woman who grew up on a farm raising pigs would later identify as a PETA-friendly vegetarian who is shocked by the idea of slaughtering animals, as the film later explicitly states. It’s also strange that the Gypsy woman, who was presumably an ordinary human, becomes more or less a disembodied stand-in for the powerful demon at different points of the film – or why she is so adamant during a time later in the film (I will try not to give too much away) to prevent the protagonist from putting a meaningless coin on a tombstone.

They are really excessive on the sound effects in some places; the dog growling sound while the old woman tries to bite the protagonist just puts it over the top.

There is no explanation as to why the protagonist didn’t tell her boyfriend more of what was going on – there is first an easy enough assumption that she kept it secret because he wouldn’t understand, but when he later reveals that she did tell him part of the story off-camera, and he seems to beleive her, it leaves a question on how some of the tragic events of the film could have been avoided had he known more.

If you watch the trailer carefully you could probably use it to guess how the movie ends.

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