Thoughts On “Drag Me To Hell”
By Jacob Krueger
I just saw “Drag Me To Hell” tonight. Talk about a great example of how a well structured movie uses theme to craft a character’s journey. Spoiler alert: If you haven’t watched this movie yet, this might be a good time to dash out and see it. Then come on back and read all about it.
The theme of “Drag Me To Hell” is pretty simple: selfish desire leads to the soul’s destruction. The film begins with a woman who is genuinely good. And step by step, the structure of the film quite literally drags her to hell– not just through the terrible curse that she must contend with, but by causing her to make such immoral choices in her attempts to escape it that by the time it’s all over, she just about deserves her fate. When we first meet Christine Brown, she is pure heaven. She’s sweet. She’s kind. She loves animals, and she cares about others. The first time we see her, she’s delivering good news to a nice young couple– she’s made it work for them to get the mortgage they need. Everyone is so happy. And it’s just the beginning of the movie. So we know we’re in trouble.
Unfortunately for Christine, there’s something that she wants very badly– a promotion to be assistant manager at the bank. And her chauvinistic boss doesn’t think she’s tough enough to deserve it. Uh oh. Characters develop when we test their convictions, so the Raimis come up with a scene to do just that. “Oh, you’re really so good? Let’s see what happens when you have to choose between repossessing the home of a helpless old gypsy woman, and losing your only shot at that job you want so badly.” What choice do you think she makes? Selfish desire.
So, even when the old woman prostrates herself before Christine, begging for mercy, Christine still doesn’t budge. She wants that promotion. So bad she can taste it. And she’s willing to do something she knows is wrong to get it. Next thing you know, she’s cursed. A demon is coming for her soul, and she’s got three days to stop it. In her attempt to escape, Christine will violate almost every ethical code she once held. She will repeatedly deny responsibility for her actions (even during the seance in which they attempt to cast out the demon), lie about her decision to repossess the old woman’s home, and instead lay the blame on her boss. She will slaughter her cute little kitten in an attempt to appease the demon’s lust for her soul (so much for volunteering at animal shelters). She will even come close to murder (or worse), as she attempts to pass the curse on to some other victim instead (by re-gifting the button which marks her as the demon’s target). Why? Because ultimately she wants to escape the curse more than she wants to uphold her values. Just like she wanted to get the promotion (and escape the “curse” of her unfair work environment) more than she wanted to show mercy to the old woman.
Of course, in a fair world, Christine wouldn’t have to sin. That’s what is so great about the structure of this screenplay. Her dominant trait is her KINDNESS. It’s only the unfairness of the world– the unfair job, the unfair curse– the sheer horror of it all, that forces Christine to choose between her desire and her morality. That’s how the writers test who she is, and force her to change. Unfortunately, Christine repeatedly fails the test, slowly but surely letting go of what is good about her, and dragging herself to hell in the process. And even when she decides not to re-gift the button to an innocent stranger, Christine does not fully recapture her morality. She doesn’t sit at the grave of the old woman, admit her wrongdoing and beg forgiveness of her spirit. Instead, she tries to condemn the soul of the woman she wronged, by re-gifting the button to her dead corpse. In the process, she also desecrates the old woman’s grave and commits the same sin her palm reader first assumed she might have committed– speaking ill of the dead in a cemetery).
Having come to this false victory by re-gifting the envelope she believes to contain the button to the old woman’s corpse, Christine thinks she has solved her problem. But she hasn’t. And not because of the mix up with the envelopes. Because she still cares more about herself than she does about those around her. Selfish Desire.
So even though Christine (after she thinks she’s gotten EVERYTHING she desires) ultimately confides to her boyfriend that she was the one who chose to repossess the woman’s house, and that this was the wrong thing to do. When her selfish desire is tested one last time, she makes the same mistake all over again. There is her boyfriend, standing with the button in his hand, and presumably damned to hell because of it. Does Christine try to snatch the button from him? Does she risk her life to save his? No, she tries to escape, once again. Tumbles into the train tracks. And is carried off to hell. Selfish desire. It’s not the curse that damns Christine, it’s her decisions. And it’s not the button that determines her boyfriend’s salvation. It’s the choices he makes.
Time and again, his desires are tested as well. And time and again, he does what is right, even when it means not getting what he wants. He makes the selfless choice for the love of Christine– agreeing to the palm reading, refusing the demands of his parents, giving her 10,000 dollars to see a spiritual advisor he doesn’t even believe in. He does all of this without even believing that Christine is haunted, and without thought of gain for himself. He does it because he loves her. His morality remains intact, because his love is stronger than his selfish desire. Hers does not, because her selfish desire is stronger than her love. And the structure of the screenplay works because it tests them both, establishing their dominant traits, and then forcing both characters to grapple with the theme, by making active choices that drive the story and ultimately bring about their own salvation or their own destruction.
To learn more about theme and the way it relates to screenplay structure, check out one of my screenwriting workshops.