I kind of feel embarrassed.
— Christine (Alison Lohman)
En route to the inevitable cacophonous bad-spirits-versus-humans showdown in Drag Me to Hell, the humans have to set the scene. Their efforts to conjure up the evil business — here called Lamia, from the Greek myth about a child-murdering demon — are traditional in the most odious sense. They gather around a big table in a cavernous room. A chandelier hangs ominously over their heads, the windows are covered in drapes and furniture made of heavy wood. The medium, Shaun San Dena (Adriana Barraza), settles into her chair and signals to her assistant (Kevin Foster). He nods and proceeds to dim the lights — with a dimmer.
The image is brief: if you blink, you’ll miss it, and afterwards, the action immediately turns nutty. Shaun San Dena begins to moan, the chairs start banging, and the about-to-be-sacrificed goat begins to worry. But that dimmer is a precious image, too, goofy and astute, the sort of detail that makes Sam Raimi’s horror movies so engagingly creepy and crazy. You know, the movies he made before Spidey sucked up his soul.
His return to form is suitably weird and not a little erratic. It’s also good gory unpretentious fun. Following a rudimentary L.A.-set backstory (Shaun San Dena has her first grisly run-in with the Lamia, which ends in a loud and fiery death), the scene turns to 40 years later, same city. Christine (the perennially limited Alison Lohman) first appears in traffic, her class background-and-aspirations neatly noted in her work with an instructional tape: “There is no friction with the proper diction,” she repeats, “Good sounds abound when the mouth is round,” with only the slightest twang audible. A bank loans officer, Christine worries that her psychology professor boyfriend Clay (wan Justin Long) might be swayed by his snooty mother’s taste (she warns him that Christine’s not “the kind of woman who could help you socially,” on the speaker phone so Christine overhears) and hopes to secure his/her respect by being promoted to assistant manager.
To this end, Christine practices her round vowels and does her best to impress her boss, Mr. Jacks (David Paymer). Across the room sits her rival, Stu (Reggie Lee), whose own plan for promotion includes groveling, cheating, and Lakers tickets for Jacks. With her dwindling options in mind, Christine faces her next applicant, Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver). An old gypsy woman with gooey false jaggedy teeth and one eye, Mrs. Ganush pleads for an extension, going so far as to fall to her knees and beg, but Christine holds fast, having been told she has to show she can “make the tough decisions.” Security guards drag the woman away, but not before she’s done a good bit of wailing and flailing, leaving Christine rattled and pretending she’s fine, as Jacks shakes his head, for the moment looking almost sympathetic.
Another raucous run-in with the old lady in the after-hours parking garage leads to Christine’s growing fear that she’s been cursed. Startled by Mrs. Ganush’s sudden ferocity and total brutality — she bites, kicks, throttles — Christine finds it in herself to fight back (with a stapler, no less), an experience that leaves her both horrified and exhilarated: “Ah beat you, you old bitch!” Christine cackles, her triumphant face as ugly and contorted as her wormy-gooshy-phlegmy opponent’s.
The fight and the not-so-settled outcome indicate Christine’s nasty, survivalist side (a point made cute and acute when, in a later scene, a TV shows the catfight scene from Destry Rides Again: nice touch). As demure and lovely as she may appear to her frequently distracted beau, the girl’s got sand, essentially admirable though frequently twisted into a strangely chipper will to self-preservation.
That no one in her world sees this will is to the point: Christine plays the part she’s expected to play, to win the husband, the job, and the social status she so covets. But you see enough to distrust her, and wonder whether the comedy she performs is also a sort of exposure. Instructed to perform an animal sacrifice to rid herself of the curse, Christine rejects the notion absolutely (“I’m a vegetarian! I volunteer at the puppy center for Christ’s sake”), then duly changes her mind following a wall-banging encounter with the shadowy Lamia (“You will be surprised what you’d be willing to do when the Lamia comes for you, her advisor observes). The sight gag that marks her change of heart reveals Christine as the sort of monster who stalks victims in slasher movies, armed with a shiny kitchen knife, skulking through long hallways.
Christine’s monstrosity is hardly so daunting as that of the spirit stalking her, but it’s of a piece with Drag Me to Hell‘s mostly vague, seemingly incidental cultural critique, aimed at her social climbing, willful blindness, and muddled self-absorption. All this is made clear in comparison to the man who might save her, a storefront spiritual adviser named Rham Jas (Dileep Rao). Though Clay scoffs, Christine has a feeling — helped along by wind and dry leaves and circling camerawork — that she needs her fortune told. That Rham sees only bad coming (so bad, he offers to give back Clay’s money) confirms Christine’s worst fears, but his serially ineffective efforts to help suggest that he has as much insight into all this mumbo jumbo as she does.
Still, Rham is sincere (or looks sincere, which may count as the same thing). And in Drag Me to Hell and other such zonked-out horror movies, this goes along way toward salvation. He believes, he wants to help, he sees how very dark both winning and losing must inexorably be. Christine can’t do any of that. And that means her future can only get dimmer by the moment.