Drag Me To Hell

Drag Me To Hell's set up is simple. Christine works at a bank. An old woman comes into her office and asks for a third extension on her mortgage - she's been short on money ever since she developed an eye problem. This puts Christine in a tough spot since her heart is telling her to help the pitiful old woman out, but her brain is telling her that she's up for a big promotion and her boss thinks she's too soft on bad risks. She knows that this eye problem is probably not going to go away, so it's unlikely that another extension is going to solve this lady's problem anymore than the first two did... Christine decides to turn the old lady down, and the gnarled crone immediately responds by putting a curse Christine. For three days the young banker is going to be haunted by a Lamia, which is a goat shaped demon, and at the end of the third day the Lamia is going to drag Christine to Hell.

Now, there are three levels we can analyze this story. The first is on a technical level: Drag Me to Hell was Sam Raimi's return to horror filmmaking after he wrapped up his Spider-Man trilogy and it feels very Raimi-ish. For starters, it has many of the same splashy but not necessarily show-offy camera moves he used in his Evil Dead series, including a few demons-eye-point-of-view shots that are super-sped up to convey impending menace. Also, Raimi's horror movies have always threaded a tonal needle since they tend to combine over the top slapstick with copious amounts of gore, and that definitely describes the simultaneously silly and graphic Drag Me to Hell. For example, the gypsy pukes bile directly into Christine's mouth more than once, which is so excessively tasteless that you basically have to laugh. (Or not; I know some people can’t stand the sight of vomit, and if that's your case I would stay the hell away from this movie.) I don't think that anyone is arguing that Drag Me To Hell is an immaculately crafted masterpiece, but it is very clear that Sam Raimi knows exactly what he wants to do with this story.

However, you can also view this movie as a deranged spiritual parable. Drag Me To Hell is basically a goofy thriller and as such it doesn't spend a lot of time exploring any specific theological territory, but I can’t watch a movie like this that has pronounced religious overtones without thinking about it’s moral implications. In this case they are pretty troubling, because this movie only makes sense if we assume that God is an utter monster who has abdicated His right to judge humans to an insane and vindictive crone. I’m not entirely comfortable with the general idea of God using Hell as punishment – the never-ending tortures it supposedly contains seem entirely disproportionate to the sorts of sins a human can commit in their relatively short life times– but this scenario is even more morally repugnant because the old gypsy is obviously an unjust judge who is using incredibly severe punishments to correct relatively inconsequential crimes. At a minimum this movie paints God as an absentee landlord who doesn’t intervene when serious crimes are occurring, but you could also make a solid case that He is actively a sociopath for creating Hell and then allowing people to be sent there for minor offenses. 

While those are both interesting avenues to be explored, I am most interested in a personal approach. You see, there is a scene where Christine goes to a fortune teller and asks him if there’s any way she can escape the Lamia’s curse. He suggests that the Lamia might accept an animal’s life as a substitute payment for her life. At first she’s repulsed by the thought, but as the Lamia’s attacks escalate she quickly reaches a point where she is willing to offer up her new kitten in her place. Naturally, the Lamia doesn’t accept her offer because if it did this would be a short movie. (Actually, the scene where the Lamia vomits up the kitten's corpse at Christine’s feet is another one of this film's funny-yet-gross-and-horrific high points. Again: emetophobes need not apply.)

As a cat-owner I can definitely relate to the animal substitution sub-plot, because of course I think of my cat and I as being on equal moral footing. (Hell, I even gave her top billing on this site, even though she does a lot less work on it.) Christine’s crisis raises the obvious question: would I be willing to sacrifice my cat if I was in a similar scenario? The answer to that question is easy - yes. A thousand times over yes. (I have a mother who still cares about me and she doesn't!) The next question is: so if a Lamia doesn't think that a cat is enough of a sacrifice to let me off the hook, what other animals would I sacrifice to save my own skin?

Well, let’s go ahead and offer up any animal that’s regularly used as meat. I mean, pigs are cute, but they are also very expendable. I would also offer up most of your other common animals without a lot of hesitation – I mean, no one is going to miss a few raccoons or possums. In fact, people will probably be glad that they are gone! Of course, the fact that these animals are so easily written off means that the Lamia probably wouldn’t accept them as good offerings. No, if I want to get off the hook I’m going to have to offer up a real sacrifice…

After thinking about it for awhile I’ve figured out where my line in the sand is: I wouldn’t sacrifice any animal that it’s illegal to kill, but just about anything else is an option. (My reasoning: I don’t want to save my life only to end up going to jail. I’m assuming that the Lamia is not specifically asking me to off an elephant, so I might as well collect an elephant’s weight in buffalo souls instead.) Of course, my willingness to go all Teddy Roosevelt on innocent wildlife raises further questions. Specifically: does my absolute comfort with this coldblooded calculation make me a monster? Yes, yes it does. But you know, that's only fitting given the movie that sparked this debate. After all, you don't call a movie "Drag Me To Hell" if you want to elevate everyone's spirit.

Winner: The Cat (although she doesn't win in the scenario where I pawn her off to save myself)

Drag Me to Hell on IMDB