The first is a supernatural horror film. The second is a horror story without any trace of the supernatural. Otherwise, they are remarkably similar. Both apply the horror film’s fundamental “return of the repressed” formula to the current economic malaise. Both films feature pretty but not-so-sympathetic heroines whose independence as career women is visually defined in part by the cars they drive. The principal threat to the heroines in both films is either a homeless person or a person about to be homeless.
Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi, 2009) stars Alison Lohman (Big Fish) as Christine, a loan officer at a bank being considered for a promotion to assistant manager. Her boss (David Paymer) advises her that if she really wants that promotion, she needs to show that she can make “tough decisions.”
Christine’s first tough decision is to deny an elderly gypsy woman a third extension on her mortgage, effectively rendering the woman homeless. In order to ensure our identification with Christine and her decision, director Raimi makes the old woman as disgusting as possible, with a clouded-over eye, withered brown fingernails, and jagged dentures that are practically dripping with bodily fluids. Not to mention a bad attitude.
That night, in a parking garage, Christine is attacked by the old woman (above, surprisingly strong) in her car. Christine manages to fend her off, but not before the old woman steals an item of Christine’s clothing, a button, and places a curse on it, “Soon, it will be you who comes begging to me.”
At this point, the story turns into a gorier more blackly comic retread of Jacques Tourneur’s classic Curse of the Demon (1958) with the protagonist trying to get rid of the cursed item (in Demon, it was a piece of parchment) before being carried off to his or her doom by a Creature From Hell.
Throughout all of this, Raimi attempts to walk a fine line between horror and comedy, and between making his protagonist sympathetic enough to care about, but not so sympathetic that the audience can’t relish the various punishments inflicted upon her. Raimi’s Evil Dead II, his best horror film to date, was simultaneously scary and funny, but in Drag Me to Hell, the director’s comic attitude undercuts the horror (see, for example, the sudden appearance of a staring eyeball in a slice of cake), and the end result is neither funny enough nor frightening enough. Worse, there is a pronounced misogynistic streak that runs through the entire film, not only in the characterization of the old woman – who resembles the “swallow your soul” ghoul-woman from Evil Dead II – but also in the characterization of Christine herself. What is this hate-love thing going on here and in the Spiderman series between Raimi and actresses who look like (or are) Kirsten Dunst?
The film is at its best when it places the audience in uncomfortable moral positions. (See Raimi’s earlier A Simple Plan.) Would you be willing to murder a cute little kitten, if by so doing you could save yourself from being torn apart by a hideous demon? When Christine hesitates to pass on the cursed button to an unscrupulous rival for the position she covets, we actually start to like her and hope that she might be saved.
Stuck (Stuart Gordon, 2007) stars Mena Suvari (American Beauty) as Brandi, a cornrow-coiffed attendant at a nursing home who is also, as it happens, being considered for a promotion. We first meet her showing compassion and patience as she cleans up an old man’s mess.
However, on the way home from a long night of partying, Brandi’s car collides with a homeless man (Stephen Rea) who gets stuck headfirst in her windshield – halfway in, halfway out – apparently bleeding to death. Like Raimi’s film, Stuck places the audience in situations where difficult moral choices have to be made and asks, in effect, if you would behave any better. Brandi chooses to drive her car home and lock man-and-car inside her garage until things sort themselves out. She comes to believe that it’s all his fault. When the man in the windshield takes longer to die than she expected, she invites her thug of a boyfriend over to expedite matters.
Where Stuck differs most significantly from Drag Me to Hell (aside from the absence of the supernatural) is in its attitude toward the economically unfortunate. While Drag Me to Hell has some sensitivity to class issues (Christine is looked down upon by her boyfriend’s well-off parents because she grew up on a farm), it compromises any critique of the heroine – or the dysfunctional system that employs her – by making the old gypsy woman a one-dimensional monster. In Stuck, on the other hand, Tom Bardo (Rea), the man in the windshield, becomes just as much a protagonist as Brandi. (In Tibetan Buddhism, the word “Bardo” means an “in-between” or “transitional” state, an appropriate name for a character who has just lost his job and his home, and is halfway between life and death, halfway in and halfway out of the car’s windshield.)
Mena Suvari and Stephen Rea are both excellent in their roles. We root for Brandi as we root for any character on screen, no matter how immoral, who attempts to solve a problem. As Brandi and Tom become mortal enemies, and Tom grows ever more resourceful simply trying to survive, our sympathies naturally shift toward him. Unlike Raimi, director Gordon never loses control of the tone of his film. The black humor is not antagonistic toward the horror but is inseparable from it.