Monday, November 21, 2011

My House Will Repossess Your Soul




Drag Me to Hell is the kind of horror movie we need right this moment, but alas it came out two and a half years ago. Oh well. I bet if it got a re-release it would triple its money again. It's the story of Christine Brown, a bank loan officer, who wants a promotion. In order to look good in front of her boss she refuses an old gypsy an extension on a mortgage payment, condemning the old woman as well as her house. So, the gypsy curses Christine. The movie is not only hilarious but also fast as a fucking bullet and, it ends up, a damn fine economic morality tale that's gained layers with age. When it was released, the housing bubble had just collapsed but no one quite grasped the implications of our massive, systematic FUBAR. Since then we may have gotten some perspective on just how awful the situation actually is, but Sam and Ivan Raimi knew it all the time. If I could choose one movie to show future generations about the Great Recession it wouldn't be Inside Job, it'd be Drag Me to Hell. 

Of course, the movie isn't at its core thinking about the economy. It's a fun horror movie filled with tropes and references steeped in Raimi's personality -- irreverent, silly, scary. Off the top of my head I can think of nods to Psycho, Beetlejuice, Night of the Living Dead, and Raimi's own Army of Darkness -- the latter from a scene in which Christine uses a pair of ice skates to cut a rope connected to an anvil to drop on the gypsy's head, which is so energetically shot that I can practically hear Raimi yelling, "I'm baaack!" after 17 years away from the genre. The set up is kind of a tropey one, too: the sinful woman punished for her decisions, trying to repent before it's too late. Those stories, for me, are inherently conservative much in the same way detective stories are. Say Sam Spade or C. Auguste Dupin have a mystery to solve that no one else within The System (usually the Police Force) can figure out. He stands alone, the individual against the system, to solve the crime and right the wrong. That sounds like a pretty progressive, individualistic, anti-establishment story, but really it's just the opposite. By solving the crime Spade or Dupin (or Bond, for that matter) reestablish the status quo, and allow The System to continue running smoothly despite its problems. They don't fix anything, they just plug up some leaks. It's like using Fix-a-Flat on a tire that obviously just needs to be replaced. Same with the moral horror movie. Nothing gets solved, someone just gets punished. Raimi does it just differently enough, though, to make me think twice. 

From the beginning, Christine is stuck between two bad choices: she can either remain poor and struggle by, or she can "make the tough decisions" as her boss says and be a little ruthless to get her promotion. Her boss passive-aggressively pushes her to make the decision that ultimately dooms her, so right away the blame is dispersed. To totally blame totally her is at least an arguable point. Who wants to stay poor? Is it really, deep down, a sinful decision for a loan officer to deny someone a third extension on a twice-failed payment? The Raimi brothers ask more than that, though, to confuse the issue. Christine is also pitted against another, more ruthless loan officer going for the same promotion. She's obviously more qualified, but an appropriate discriptor for this man is "Douche Bag," and those are always hard to deal with. Some blame could go to him; or, more accurately, Christine has been pushed into the position of being the Blamed One by systematic problems: money, an economy that values ruthless Douche Bags over skilled workers, and the Douche Bag himself. 

Funny thing, though: Christine has a pretty nice house for being poor. Two story, nice view, one bedroom craftsman. This detail of her life is never explicitly mentioned, but it sure gets played like an in-joke every time it gets trashed by an invisible goat-demon coming for Christine's soul. I didn't notice it on the first viewing, but this time I thought, "Oh, it must be a rental." Cheeky, Raimi! Very cheeky. Way to sneak in some filmic clues that maybe Christine really doesn't need that promotion. Maybe she's doing better for herself than she's letting on. Same with her apparently rich boyfriend Clay, played by Justin Long. Another slew of bone dry jokes come from his affluence: his parents live in a giant mansion and are clearly just frothing at the bit to give him a nice inheritance if only Christine would sack up and prove herself something other than a podunk farm girl; while Christine pawns everything (well, not everything) she owns to come up with a measly $3800, Clay drops $10k off screen just to pay for the seance that will hopefully save her soul from eternal damnation. Another funny in-joke: Christine tries to call Clay to save her from the goat-monster, but he's away from his iPhone because it's docked and charging. She's calling from a shitty Motorola. Clearly Clay could support them both if he were to just settle down with her. So is his hesitance to be blamed for her curse? Or are these further signs of Christine's selfishness? Raimi plays all of these scenes for dual meaning, so its difficult to tell.

At the center of this web of blame is the gypsy woman herself, the one who actually puts a curse on Christine. She's obviously evil -- proof being that she's cursed souls before -- and the code she lives by (the Gypsy Code, I assume, not the Old Lady Code), has the same kind of strictures that Christine's economic code has. If you steal from a gypsy, you get cursed. If you shame a gypsy, you get cursed. If you don't pay your mortgage, your house gets repossessed. If you want money, you step on people for money. Same dick different shower. If I were Christine, I'd obviously blame the gypsy for my curse, but by the end of the movie Christine has this kind of beautiful circular character arc where she admits that she was being selfish and that she could have given the gypsy and extension had she really wanted to. She comes to terms with her faults and agrees to move forward, settled down with Clay in, I assume, an existence less tied to her own monetary gain. 

Raimi doesn't answer to any of those repentances. What he does do is drag Christine to Hell regardless of blame. Or, another more dangerous way to read the ending: Christine's to blame because she was not brave. Period. I dig this reading. It gets at what really could be progressive and anti-establishment about the genre, and feels like something usually forgotten: she made the choice, she takes the consequences, and regardless of The System it always comes down to the individual even if it means death, destruction, or poverty. And here Drag Me to Hell has the perfect balance and solution of the moral dilemma of bravery. 

Consider with me for a moment, if you will, an ethical entanglement presented by philosopher Sam Harris. On a trip abroad, he encountered a woman being abducted on the street by a group of large, burly men. They were violently drunk and obviously meant her harm. Sam was the only one to witness this possible rape in progress. He immediately assessed the situation: if he were to interfere with force, he would be beaten or killed. So, he approached the group and began speaking to them in elevated English to confuse their foreign tongues. "Excuse me," he said, "I seem to have lost my hotel, my lodging, my place of residence, where I lie supine, not prone. Can you help me? Where is it? Where is it?" He continued the conversation like this, and in the lingual confusion the woman was able to slip away unnoticed, unharmed. Sam tells the rest, and could practically come from the mouth of Christine's soul after an eternity of introspection:

"While my conduct in the above situation seems to meet with the approval of almost everyone, I consider it an example of a moral failure ... My ethical failure, as I see it, is that I never actually opposed [the men's] actions -- hence they never received any correction from the world."

And thus Christine is doomed. She never opposes The System directly, hence she is complicit and must pay. Another way to put it: you might work at a fucked up bank, but that bank is so fucked up you shouldn't be working there in the first place. And if you need a talking goat to convince you of that, you have some real priorities to work out. In this context, the movie has some damn funny lines. Christine hoses her boss with a demonic projectile nose-bleed, and his only reaction is, "Did I get any in my mouth?!" Perfect selfishness. Same goes with the sequence where Christine sells only most of her stuff, not all of it, to pay for her ten thousand dollar seance. You'd think you'd get rid of every worldly possession to try to SAVE YOUR FUCKING SOUL, but that's an awfully nice table your stack of money is sitting on, girl. What the fuck. Raimi's funny 'tude toward all this reminds reminds me of the punk-rockiness I feel when I read Oscar Wilde's quote about charity, which I will leave you with only if you agree to read it in the voice of a demonic goat: 

"It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair."

1 comment:

Shawn said...

Really like every sentence of this piece. Feel like it bores into the heart of the film in an exciting and elucidating manner. This should be the film's official liner notes.

Don't know if you remember that Drag Me inspired me to create Inner Genre. To be specific, writing about Drag Me inspired me to create Inner Genre. Just reread my own piece - it doesn't talk about the film so much as celebrate the film's personality. What I said then I still say and have said recently re Gem City. Interesting to be reminded of this.