With A Most Horrific Year, Senior Staff Writer Randall Colburn analyzes and reflects on the most critically acclaimed horror movie of every year, starting in 2015 and moving backwards. Spoilers are guaranteed.
Drag Me to Hell (2009)
Worldwide Gross: $90,842,646
Certified Fresh: 92%
I believed in Hell once.
My pastor played us an audio clip. Siberian well diggers drilled a hole so deep they broke through, discovering a hollow center. Inside, scientists measured temperatures of more than 2,000 degrees. Microphones were lowered into the hole. They heard screams. Thousands, perhaps millions.
See, some people believe Hell exists in the center of the Earth. They tend to cite Ezekiel 31:16: “I made the nations to shake at the sound of his fall, when I cast him down to hell with them that descend into the pit: and all the trees of Eden, the choice and best of Lebanon, all that drink water, shall be comforted in the nether parts of the earth.” It’s not something most Christians tend to believe.
“Who knows if it’s true?” my pastor said. “But I can imagine this is what hell sounds like.”
You can still hear the audio, though it’s been long debunked. I wasn’t reading Snopes then. I was a Christian. I operated on faith. I was kind of a bad Christian. There are good Christians, lots of them, but I wasn’t one. I wasn’t hateful, but I was sorta dumb. I didn’t challenge myself. I reveled in shame.
And it was shame I felt as we listened to these grainy, fabricated screams. Twilight descended outside the tiny daycare we co-opted for our services as my pastor told us that by not sharing our faith with our loved ones, we were damning them to this. I thought of my unsaved parents, my unsaved brother and sister-in-law. I felt shame.
There are a lot of awful emotions, but shame might be the worst.
Hell’s beneath the Earth’s surface in Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell, too. That’s the practical assumption, at least, considering its fiery entrance manifests through flame-licked cracks in the ground. It’s a traditional interpretation, Raimi’s Hell, all fire and brimstone and emaciated demon things. A simple interpretation for a movie that, on its surface at least, is far more interested in honoring time-tested B-movie schlock than it is in forging any kind of new mythology. Which is a good thing. Drag Me to Hell is, like Raimi’s Evil Dead 2, pure catharsis, a sick, joyous merging of technique and exploitation.
Alison Lohman stars as Christine, a plucky loan officer in pursuit of a promotion. To get that promotion, her boss (David Paymer) says she’ll need to start “making some tough decisions”; that means cutting off those behind on their loan payments. She starts with Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), an elderly gypsy who, after getting on her knees and begging for help, curses Christine with the Lamia, an ancient demon. A fortuneteller elaborates: After being tormented for three days, Christine will be damned to Hell for eternity.
The three-day timeline was borrowed from The Night of the Demon, a British horror film from the ‘50s. So was the film’s conceit of a curse passing through a passed object, a detail that provides the film’s biggest, most satisfying twist. Despite the influences, however, the film resonates as pure Raimi, from the mishmash of its mythology to its pitch-black slapstick. He wrote it with his brother Ivan, cast his brother Ted, and rounded things out with a motley crew of former collaborators, including composer Christopher Young and editor Bob Murawski, who also worked on Army of Darkness.
“I spent the last decade doing Spider-Man,” he said in an interview with Post Magazine, “and you come to rely on a lot of people doing things for you and a lot of help, but it’s refreshing and wonderful to be reminded that, as with most filmmakers, the best way to do it is yourself, with a tight team doing the main jobs.”
It’s that intimacy, one can imagine, that imbues the film with such a purposeful sense of giddiness. Raimi was probably ready to have some fun: Before being under the thumb of Marvel for three Spider-Man movies, he trafficked in respectable but morose fare like The Gift and A Simple Plan. With Drag Me to Hell, Raimi could indulge his every whim, whether that be an homage to Eraserhead’s stomach-churning dinner scene or the kind of casual, punishing cruelty he loves to inflict on his protagonists.
Despite it all, there is a touch of complacence beneath the surface. For all of Drag Me to Hell’s charms, it really doesn’t age well in terms of effects. Raimi, who worked practical wonders on a shoestring with the first two Evil Dead movies, here leans back on substandard CGI effects that seem on the verge of pixelating. Some moments — such as a fist that barrels deeply down Christine’s throat — could perhaps only have been done with digital effects, but that doesn’t negate the disconnect that comes with seeing the 0s and 1s needed to make it happen.
Luckily, the film isn’t completely bound to digital trickery. Saliva, blood, vomit, and embalming fluids flow with abandon, and an early fight scene in Christine’s car evokes the best of Evil Dead with a flurry of found weapons that include both a seatbelt and a stapler.
But violence isn’t the point. Violence is a joke in this movie. You can get thrown across a room, stapled in the head, or punched through your gullet, but you’ll never get hurt. Not physically, at least. At its core, Drag Me to Hell is about mental turmoil, the collapse of our sanity and values.
Drag Me to Hell is about shame.
“You shame me,” the old gypsy woman cries. “I beg you and you shame me.”
It’s rarely physical pain we want to inflict. There’s too much baggage with that, too many laws and lawsuits. Even when we’re fighting somebody, it’s not marks we want to leave behind so much as a sense of embarrassment. We want a person to feel as if they were bested, that they failed, that what they had to offer was inadequate. Wounds heal, but the sense that you are not good enough doesn’t.
I didn’t come from religion. I got saved in college. My best friend didn’t believe me. I was doing it for a girl, he said. This isn’t you, he said. Have you fucked her? he asked. He didn’t believe me when I said no. Have a drink, he said. He hated me when I said no. Am I going to Hell? he asked. I hesitated and he disappeared. I hesitated because Hell wasn’t real. Heaven wasn’t, either. Not yet. You can love Christ, but a bifurcated afterlife will always feel like a fairy tale. There’s not enough words in the Bible about either. We damn people based on scraps of language. Faith is dangerous because the fallible choose to fill in the gaps.
I showed up on his porch for his 21st birthday party. I brought him a six-pack of beer. I had shamed him. I knew that. He saw the beer: “I’ll only take it if you have one with me.” It was subtle shaming of his own. We argued throughout the night. Hours later, we stood outside my car.
“You’ve changed,” he said.
I replied, “You haven’t.”
Shame is a weapon. It’s a virus. It chews. It buckles us at the knees.
“Do you really think I’m going to Hell?” he asked.
I replied, “If you don’t give your heart to Christ.”
Shame is a cycle.
The old gypsy woman is shamed, but she promises: “Soon it will be you who comes begging to me.”
It’s what we both hoped for, I imagine, my friend and I. But we never spoke again.
Shame hung heavy in the summer of 2009. No money, no jobs. The US pumped trillions into the economy, but the Great Recession raged on, despite everyone saying the subprime mortgage crisis ended in June of 2009, the same month Drag Me to Hell came out. Critics latched onto the movie’s topicality; despite the script having been written a decade earlier, the central plot revolved around the moral consequences of our current financial climate. People can’t afford their homes; out of desperation, they turn into monsters. Banks can’t afford to finance their homes; out of self-preservation, they turn into monsters. Up until its final moments, Drag Me to Hell can be read as a morality play about a young woman who compromises her values, suffers for her mistakes, and comes out a better, more successful person. Raimi’s double-cross at the end, however, with a simple mix-up resulting in Christine’s eternal damnation, feels much more honest. They may say the crisis is ending, but nobody’s getting off scot-free here.
Drag Me to Hell wasn’t the only horror movie consumed by the country’s financial anxiety. Both Ti West’s House of the Devil and Richard Kelly’s The Box found characters either inching out of their comfort zones or recalibrating their moral compass in pursuit of money. West’s succeeded where Kelly’s failed in that the young upstart valued coherent storytelling, practical effects, and reverence for the genre over the Donnie Darko director’s impenetrable mindfuckery. In many ways, West was 2009’s true horror discovery, but with its slow, measured build-up, House of the Devil deviated a touch too far from the norms of the era to truly be considered a crossover hit like Drag Me to Hell.
Elsewhere, it was a rather peripatetic year for horror, with filmmakers around the globe working to snatch the brass ring from torture porn’s loosening fist (though Saw VI did turn out to be one of the series’ best). Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist and Tom Six’s The Human Centipede occupied opposite ends of the artistic spectrum, but nevertheless culled cries of repulsion from their respective extremes. And Raimi wasn’t alone in his desire to weave humor back into horror, as Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body and Tommy Wirkola’s Dead Snow both mined laughs from their carnage. As always, sequels and remakes were in full abundance, though the only ones worth mentioning are the so-so The Final Destination and Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, which thrills for the first 20 minutes before wearing out its goodwill.
A movie like Drag Me to Hell was rare, not just in 2009 but in the genre itself. Here, we had a major studio director with an original, recognizable aesthetic and a horror pedigree returning to his roots to make the kind of movie that would otherwise never score a $30 million budget.
The horror slate in 2009 wasn’t lacking in vision — you had Trier, Six, West, and Kusama in there — but perhaps no other film felt quite as playfully cruel as Drag Me to Hell. Watching it is to invite a snot-nosed child to kick you in the shins every few minutes.
It pulses throughout the film. Christine is ashamed of her past as a fat girl on a farm. She’s ashamed of the history of alcoholism in her family. So is Christine’s boyfriend’s mother. They bond over their shame. It’s a comforting moment, but a fleeting one.
Because what’s prescient about Drag Me to Hell is how it forecasts what’s become a societal norm some eight years later. See, shame has evolved, as all societal ills eventually do. Social media has changed the way we, as people, communicate. Whether that’s a good or bad thing isn’t the point of this article, but that it’s provided a new way of shaming is. Insecurity and pettiness gave us personal shaming, while religion, class, and politics forged a culture of institutional shaming. To shame online, however, is to shame publicly; to shame online is to recruit followers. And to be pursued by that army is a new fear, one that was just in its infancy when Drag Me to Hell was in production.
I think I still do believe in Hell.