Many people (including myself) consider fashion an essential form of expression, a way to communicate who you are and what you are about without even having to utter a single word. For others, however, it can be a means of repression, a way of hiding their true identity in an attempt to avoid conflict and/or gain status. There’s no doubt in my mind that Christine Brown, of 2009’s Drag Me to Hell (2009), belongs in that latter camp.
While Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell is a film known for revelling in excess, you cannot say the same for its heroine. Yes, loan officer Christine (a perfectly cast Alison Lohman) does do some pretty nasty things in the film, starting with denying a bankrupt woman (the excellent Lorna Raver as Mrs. Ganush) an extension on her mortgage in an attempt to gain a promotion and culminating with her almost dooming a coworker to eternal damnation. But you really wouldn’t know any of this by looking at her.
Not entirely a devil in disguise, Christine is definitely much more interesting than she presents herself at the start of the film. With a closet filled with muted patterns and colours, we get the sense that Christine spends her days playing the part of a Serious Young Business Woman (or at least, young woman who wants to seem serious about business and “perfectly capable of making the tough decisions”).
Everything about Christine is sensible to a fault, from her choice in job and work ethic to her flippy ponytail and very basic brown peacoat. In fact, one of the most horrifying moments in the first quarter of Drag Me to Hell is when we first join Christine at work and see that she’s wearing sheer white blouse (with tank top underneath, of course), dark grey pencil skirt and small gold hoop earrings — the very outfit I once wore to almost every interview straight out of college.
It’s not that Christine looks unpolished, or even bad in these early scenes. Rather, it’s that she looks like nothing and no one at all, blending into the drab backgrounds of her dated and depressing workplace like a faded sign-up sheet or dusty divider. It’s no wonder Mrs. Ganush chooses to approach her in the first place — she seems like a blank slate, an easy target.
By putting Christine in such unremarkable workwear at the start of the film, costume designer Isis Mussenden (American Psycho, Velvet Buzzsaw) tricks us into thinking we’re in for a standard story of a simple person forced to do the extraordinary. But as the movie continues, we come to see that Christine’s Nice Girl Act is just that, with a wardrobe to match.
“Not entirely a devil in disguise, Christine is definitely much more interesting than she presents herself at the start of the film.”
After a particularly harrowing day at work that ends with her seemingly getting attacked and then cursed by Mrs. Ganush and her snot-covered handkerchief, Christine returns home and puts on a worn purple henley and yellow pyjama pants. While the colours aren’t particularly vibrant, this is a much more playful look than her work uniform, a subtle hint at her true personality. And, naturally, it while she is wearing this outfit that we finally get our first glimpse into Christine’s past.
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While Christine is in the kitchen later that night, she stumbles upon an old photo of herself that had been lodged in between pages of a cookbook. The picture shows us Christine at a much younger age, her hair in pigtails and her belly out as she stands next to a sign reading “Pork Queen Fair 1995.”
There have been many articles written about whether or not this photo and the film’s obsession with Christine‘s size (see: Mrs. Ganush‘s relative saying she “used to be real fat girl”) suggests that she is either is living with an eating disorder or recovering from one. At the very least, we can determine that Christine feels there are parts of her past, parts of herself, that she desperately needs to hide.
Clothing is her shield from the truth and so, the moment that Mrs. Ganush steals the button off her brown coat to cast that curse, Christine immediately starts to unravel from the inside. In the two days that follow, we see this poor woman kill a cat, attend a $10,000 séance and desecrate an old woman’s dead body in an attempt to delay her dark fate. And yet, she tries to play it cool on the outside, turning to safe colours and silhouettes in order to maintain a sense of normalcy in the midst of the building insanity.
The day after her run-in with Mrs. Ganush, Christine puts on a grey plaid suit set to go to work. This put-together, albeit boring look is quickly ruined when Christine starts to have one of the most epic nosebleeds in film history while talking to her boss. She spends much of the rest of the day covered in dried blood, that brown jacket with the missing button barely covering up the blatant evidence of chaos. She finally changes into something new when she gets covered in another bodily fluid after Mrs. Ganush‘s fresh corpse falls directly on her.
Desperate for a refresh after another pretty wretched day, Christine ups the sartorial stakes that evening by pulling out what is surely the most colourful piece in her closet: a gorgeous bright yellow cocktail dress. She looks positively dreamy as she attends a dinner with her cute, but clueless boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) and his parents (Molly Cheek and Chelcie Ross), her dirty blonde hair down in loose, carefree waves. But a great outfit and good hair can only take you so far when you start to have nightmarish visions of decaying cakes and errant flies in the middle of dinner.
“[…] we can determine that Christine feels there are parts of her past, parts of herself, that she desperately needs to hide.”
The following day, a defeated, yet determined Christine goes back to her signature drab colour palette, turning to a business meeting-ready slinky dark grey dress, tights and flats as she works with fortune teller Rham Jas (Dileep Rao) and medium Shaun San Dena (Adriana Barraza) to try and rid herself from this damned curse. But Christine‘s old tricks are no match for the devil, with the séance resulting in Shaun getting possessed by Lamia — the demon we learn has been haunting Christine — before dying.
Still in that same, painfully safe outfit, Christine makes one last attempt to do the right thing, heading to a local diner to bequeath her cursed button to someone who “deserves” it: her cutthroat coworker Stu (Reggie Lee). But when Stu finally arrives, Christine can’t go through with it, leaving with nothing more than a stomach full of chocolate sundaes (told you this movie truly has an unhealthy obsession with what she eats).
After yet another defeat, Christine finally gives up the act, changing into a baggy t-shirt, jeans and boots as she journeys to the graveyard Mrs. Ganush was buried in. We see Christine really let herself go for the first time, covering herself in mud as she digs through the dirt to get to Ganush. You can almost hear her Southern accent come through when she finally shoves the envelope with the button in it in Ganush‘s mouth, telling her to “choke on it, bitch.”
The next time we see Christine, she is a wholly new person, inside and out. Bouncing around in a coral cardigan, a white sundress and wedges on her way to meet Clay, Christine seems to be happy for the first time in days and perhaps even excited for the future. On this high, she even stops to buy a new jacket after spying a cute baby blue trench in a store window.
Alas, it is too late for Christine. Just moments after reconnecting with Clay, she learns that she didn’t actually give Ganush the right envelope and instead shoved a rare coin — once meant for Clay — down her dead throat. After Clay hands her the real envelope, Christine is doomed again, falling onto the train tracks behind her and getting (you guessed it) dragged to hell. In the end, nothing — not a new wardrobe, nor a new attitude — could save Christine from her tragic fate.
It’s been over 10 years since Drag Me to Hell came out and the final act still haunts me to this day. It’s not the gore, the goats or even the gratuitous gags involving human secretion — it’s assertion that dressing and acting the part means absolutely nothing.
“In the end, nothing — not a new wardrobe, nor a new attitude — could save Christine from her tragic fate.”
I like to think of Christine in moments when I catch myself muting my personal style to suit certain situations and certain people. While it might seem like the right move strategically, briefly convincing people that you belong in a space where you otherwise might not be invited, hiding who you are ultimately doesn’t serve you. It actually puts you at risk for misleading others and, more importantly, yourself.
It’s not to say that maybe Christine would have been able to avoid her situation entirely if she had just chosen to wear a yellow blouse to work the day Mrs. Ganush came in. But, at the very least, she might have felt more confident, finding the strength to stand her ground and do what she really felt was right (renewing Ganush‘s mortgage).
Perhaps Christine is actually down there in hell thriving, living freely and making friends with the likes of Lil Nas X. In any case, I hope that she’s still got that blue jacket, a token of the life she could lived if she had only chosen to let herself be a little less buttoned up.
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