It helps to believe in hell if you’re going to make a movie in which it figures prominently.
What do you suppose are the chances that the brothers Raimi, Sam and Ivan, who are responsible for Drag Me to Hell, actually believe in hell? Given the probability that most clergymen these days don’t believe in it, I’d say they were pretty low. So what are the implications for a movie in the climactic scene of which we watch as the ground opens up beneath one of the characters, who is then dragged down into a fiery pit screaming “Help me! Help me please”? When a similar thing happens in Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni, the eponymous victim doesn’t scream like a little girl. He is defiant to the end, spurning all offers of help, which is what creates the moral universe of that great opus irrespective of whether Mozart or da Ponte, his librettist, actually believed in hell or were only using it symbolically. In Drag Me there is no moral universe. Hell is, like everything else, just a joke.
Or at least I assume it is. The alternative is to suppose that the authors are getting a chuckle out of imagining someone’s being submitted to eternal torments. That, as Dr. Johnson said of Hamlet’s wish for Claudius, “That his soul may be as damn’d and black/As hell, whereto it goes,” is a thing “too horrible to be read or to be uttered.” But in a “non-judgmental” world in which we have grown used to thinking of actions as detached from their consequences and thus, gradually, to thinking of them as having no consequences, the iconography of hell has become nothing more than part of the repertory of horror-movie effects. And, of course, for some time now horror movies have been trending comical, since the horror-movie effects are well recognized as such by the media-savvy teenage audiences for which they are made and so are not taken seriously anymore.
Actually, Drag Me to Hell resembles reality TV more than it does most horror movies. That too may represent a trend. It also has about as much reality as reality TV too, which is to say zero. The movie is constantly threatening to turn into the kind of reality show in which contestants have to eat bugs and wallow in mudpits with corpses and do other gross things in order to prove their willingness to flatter a degenerate audience’s sense of what “reality” is. The contestant in this case is pretty little Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), a bank loan officer who, angling for a promotion from a boss (David Paymer) who wants her to show how tough she is, denies an extension on her mortgage to an old gypsy woman (Lorna Raver), who proceeds to curse her. That’s what leads to the bugs and whatnot. Seeing her almost childish feminine freshness violated by various forms of grossness and corruption seems to me to be intended to produce a sexual frisson — and not in a good way.
Now I’m no expert on gypsy curses, but I’m pretty sure that they expire at the grave. Gypsies may be the possessors of powerful magic, but it would be decidedly heterodox to suppose that they — or any other mortals, angels or spirits below the pay-grade of the Divinity Himself — had the power to damn anyone to hell. If hell existed, that is. And if anyone were ever sent there, which we are now generally pretty sure no one ever is. The theological confusion just renders the emptiness of the moral universe of the movie and the triviality and artificiality of its gallery of schlock horrors that much more weightless in the imagination — as if the Raimis had said, “Whatever. We know you’re not going to take any of this stuff seriously anyway.”
It’s too bad, since I went to their movie hoping for a touch of satire, a point of contact with the real world which seemed to be promised by the allusion to the current credit crisis and foreclosure epidemic. Surely it must be possible to impose a moral template on the behavior of borrowers or lenders or both such that a supernatural sanction of some sort on that behavior might fit in with a genuine, grown-up, moral understanding of the world? But if so, the Raimi brothers have given all that a miss for the sake of a feeble, po-mo joke. In the classic horror films, the authors dared their audience to believe in monsters or ghosts or zombies, as even Mr. Sam Raimi does to some extent in his “Evil Dead” franchise. That even so little belief as this is no longer on the agenda may also be not unconnected with the kind of moral laxity that has led to so much economic hardship.