Friday, October 18, 2013

Movie Analysis: Drag Me to Hell

Sam Raimi wrote Drag Me to Hell (with his brother Ivan) before the Spider-Man movies took over his life, but made it later. And it seems a lot like a return to a simpler, more natural form for Raimi: it's horror, with some gross-out humor; but it also has a pretty simple storyline, with a woman getting a curse from a gypsy and trying to undo that curse. You can't get much simpler than that.

Right now I'm hip deep in thinking about the structure of horror movies; and one thing I noticed was how easily this movie fits into Dan Harmon's 8-point Campbellian story wheel (which you can read about here)--and how a few parts stick out.
  1. You: We are introduced to Christine Brown, a woman trying to shed her past and to move up in the world (and at her job as a loan officer) despite the bullshit she gets from her male colleagues.
  2. Need: Her serious boyfriend's mom reminds her that she still stinks of the farm--that past she's trying to get away from. To ensure that she gets the promotion to assistant manager, she takes a "hard" stand against a Gypsy woman named Ganush seeking a loan extension and Ganush reacts... poorly. This is our Act 1 decision/climax.
  3. Go (entering the underworld, the chaos, the subconscious): That night, in an underground-seeming parking garage of all places, Ganush attacks Christine and curses her. This is the transition from the above-ground, conscious world that makes sense--the world of money, the world of upward mobility--to the below-ground, magic world. Now that Christine is on Ganush's turf, symbolically speaking, she is drawn to magicians, like the seer Rham Jas, and also experiences several nightmarish attacks. If only she had someone to help her!
  4. Search (aka "the road of trials"): Now that the curse has almost entirely ruined her above-ground life--bleeding all over her boss and letting her rival at the bank steal her work--Christine searches for a way to break it. She tries to get Mrs. Ganush to remove it, but Ganush is already dead. So she goes back to Rham Jas who says that maybe a blood-sacrifice will help. Christine refuses that until she's attacked again and then makes the choice to sacrifice her kitten. It seems to work and she arrives at her boyfriend's parents house bearing a cake and ignoring the curse long enough to impress ...
  5. Find ("meeting the Goddess"): ... her boyfriend's disapproving mother by being honest about her own mother's failings. If 1 and 2 were about how Christine was trying and failing to get away from her past and attach herself to these future in-laws, 5 is that momentary respite where she's accomplished the goal. And all it took for her to find this happiness in this beautiful house was, symbolically, taking away Ganush's house. Which comes back to bite her here in the form of the curse, which ruins the nice dinner. (Notice that 5--the midpoint--is also a stakes-raised moment: Christine isn't just haunted by the curse--she's haunted by the curse in front of people she needs to impress.)
  6. Take: Having seen the life she could have, Christine is committed to paying the price, which sees her getting rid of all her stuff to pay the fee for a powerful medium, even when she knows that the medium is risking her life. She doesn't actually have enough money, but the skeptical boyfriend decides to pay it for her--which is a nice inversion of the loan that Christine refused to give in 2. Instead of a single medium (Ganush) being in the bank's territory, a single banker (Christine) is now on the spiritualist's territory. The ritual goes poorly, but it seems successful at the end, except for the medium's death--which is not unusual for the 6th step, which is all about paying the price for what you wanted/got in 5. But now Christine is left still in the magical world, without any way to get out, except...
  7. Return: ... if she passes on the curse to someone else, she'll be free. She tests the idea of giving the curse to her rival at the bank, but his pathetic blubbering makes her reconsider for some reason. (He blubbers about what will happen if his dad finds out, but it doesn't seem to justify his earlier actions--stealing her work--or her decision not to give him it.) Then she gets the idea of giving the curse back to Ganush, which requires some grave-robbing and comedy-horror fighting with the corpse. But she does it and, as the new day dawns, Christine crawls out of the grave. She's back in the above-ground world of logic, order, and money. She's ready to face her future. 
  8. Change: And that future looks bright: she's got the promotion, she's about to get proposed to, she even bought a new coat to replace the coat that was cursed. And, just as importantly, she's ready to face the truth that she was hiding: it wasn't her manager who refused the loan extension--it was all her decision. So she's learned her lesson about extending mercy to others and facing the truth? Well, sure, but it's still too late: she still has the cursed object, since what she actually gave to the corpse of Mrs. Ganush was a rare coin that she gave to her boyfriend. Oh, I like how the world of money/gifts gets confused with the world of magic/gifts; and theme is one of the ways that structure gets built and reinforced. And so Christine gets dragged to hell.
Pretty nice match, I'd say. But if you wanted a really simple map of this story, I'd say we could draw it as a single line: "Woman who tries to better herself keeps facing obstacles" and then we could list the obstacles and whether she gets out of them. Most of the obstacles follow the form of "yes, but" (she succeeds at some task, but it leads to further problems) or "no, and" (where she fails and some additional problem is presented). So, for instance, the "giving the cursed object to Ganush-corpse" is a series of trials, which can be summarized as:
  • Does she dig up the body? Yes, BUT the stiff corpse won't accept the gift easily.
  • Does she succeed in giving the gift to Ganush-corpse? Yes, BUT she has trouble crawling out of the grave.
Like I said, it's a linear story that pretty nicely breaks down into the eight-point story structure (descent into the underworld at 3, ascent into the over-world at 7, etc.).

Except I skipped the opening section: a prologue where we see the curse take a victim to Hell in the 1960s, despite the best effort of the powerful medium we meet again in 6. Although she fails to save the young boy (who stole something from Gypsies), the medium promises to face him again and dispel him then. Like many horror movies, this prologue serves to introduce us to the real danger of the curse. We see the same thing, more or less, in Ring and Scream and Jaws: someone we don't know or care about gets killed by the monster, proving that this monster means business.

I wonder now if horror movies are especially friendly to these sorts of prologues or if we see them as often in other genres?

1 comment: