The James Clayton Column: The cult of the crazy old lady

James celebrates Sam Raimi's Drag Me To Hell, with a couple of spoilers within...!

Drag Me To Hell

As far as movie villains go, I think that Mrs. Sylvia Ganush of Drag Me To Hell has instantly catapulted herself into the elite club of “Unbelievably Noxious and Nefarious Nasty Guys in Film That You Can’t Help But Love Nonetheless”. Though I sympathise with the Alison Lohman character – sweet-faced Christine Brown who’s sadly condemned and cursed for the one occasion she fails to show compassion – I can’t help but cheer on the wicked gypsy hag who harangues her in Sam Raimi’s new horror flick.

Played brilliantly by Lorna Raver, Ganush is great. Throughout Drag Me To Hell, she’s memorable and mesmerising as the infirm and elderly bringer of darkness who swiftly turns from vulnerable pensioner to vicious purveyor of curses upon being refused an extension on her mortgage repayments. It’s unwise, so it emerges in the unfortunate case of Christine, to come down hard on a gypsy woman…

Regardless of Ganush’s wisdom in the ways of the supernatural, Christine should have known that, aside from being rude, it’s really not a good idea to go up against antiquated female figures anyway. I’m pretty certain that there is no more unsettling an antagonist in cinema than the archetypal crazy old lady. If Psycho taught us anything (beyond the fact that you shouldn’t steal money, that there’s a reason the empty roadside motel has nothing but vacancies and that taxidermists are odd), it’s that you don’t mess around with mad elderly mothers. Such is their power to do pernicious damage, their ill-influence can transcend the grave (as seen in both Psycho and Drag Me To Hell). Never cross a deranged matriarch (I think it’s something to do with giving birth. Once you’ve been through that, everything else is easy).

Ganush is furthermore a fantastic adversary in that she’s not only suitably disturbed but concomitantly disturbing and, indeed, disgusting. Manners maketh man, but they mean nothing and matter not when you’re a frighteningly insane old hag in a film. No standing on ceremony for Sylvia – she just slips out those false teeth in front of all and sundry at the building society and leaves the slobber-covered dentures on the desk so she can suck on sweets. Admit it – if you had false teeth you wouldn’t resist the opportunity to gross everyone out. For her unashamed self-acceptance and refreshing honesty (though there isn’t much ‘fresh’ about it), I salute the gummy grand old woman.

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It’s not just the false-dentures that bring forth an abundance of bodily fluids, and right from the beginning Sylvia is established as an almighty purveyor of putrescence through her constant hacking and wheezing. From her first encounter with the clean young Christine she’s coughing up phlegm and she subsequently proceeds – should that fail to rile the spectator’s sanitary concerns – to spread more yuckiness throughout Drag Me To Hell. As Ganush goes for her victim with vehement hell fury, poor Christine comes into contact with more saliva, slobber, gunk, gore and other gushy substances than any regular person would want to experience in a lifetime.

Perhaps that means I’m not a regular person as I loved the all-out viscera and slimy violence of Drag Me To Hell. It’s been acclaimed as Sam Raimi’s return to form and celebratory slide back into the Evil Dead-type stuff that made his name, but I’d mark the movie as a happy comeback for cathartic splatter cinema. In a sea of bleak brutality, Drag Me To Hell‘s inclinations towards black comedy and interest in amping up the ooze instead of focusing on perverse sadism, as many horror releases have done lately, strikes me as something to savour. Whether we’re freakishly weird or not, fans of schlock and gunge are guaranteed a mind-blowingly great time as Ganush unleashes all icky insects and barrel-loads of bodily fluid on the mortified Christine.

In the face of such carnage, the more practical, hygienic or house proud members of the audience may find themselves asking: “how on Earth would you clean up such mess?” To deal with her own personal flying phlegm, Ganush uses a grotty old handkerchief, which raises another reason to praise her (and, indeed, the entire film). Several seemingly mundane, innocuous items from everyday life become charged with supernatural evil in Drag Me to Hell and the eyeball-sprouting slice of cake and curse-bearing button stand as two examples of material objects that come to assume a more sinister nature. (Incidentally, if you look to the way button-eyes came to symbolise the subversive threat of the ‘Other’ world in Coraline, I’d say someone is trying to tell us something. Don’t trust the buttons!)

Beating out such humble horrors as a cyclopean dessert and a diabolical coat-fastener, Ganush’s hankie sits as the supreme object of evil in the movie. Possessed and empowered to forcefully attack Christine in her car, the handkerchief captured my imagination whether it was floating ominously in anticipation of its assault or in the actual act of engaging its prey.

If you think about it, handkerchiefs are pretty nasty things considering that they exist to be shoved in nasal orifices and soak up stuff that no one wants to contemplate. It makes sense then that one should be constructed in film as an artefact of ill omen to accurately reflect the dread and disgust that people project onto them. In view of the fact that Mrs. Ganush’s well-worn hankie has presumably had to endure years of the most repulsive phlegm, slobber and snot conceivable, it’s no wonder it turned evil. The inspired act of manipulating a nose wipe into being a manifestation of gypsy black magic is a masterstroke. Thanks to Drag Me To Hell, noses will be running unstaunched all winter…

Until Attack Of The Toilet Paper is released then, there’s probably going to be no more upsetting a prospect to flu-suffering cinemagoers than the possessed handkerchief belonging to the Great Ganush. With said demonic hankie alongside her wonky eye, hexing fury and delightful amounts of discharge, I find Raver’s character to be compelling and captivating as a cult villain. She’s the kind of crazed old lady that you long to see crop up in a film for no apparent good reason – every film needs the reassuring presence of a decrepit ancient hack in the backdrop to occasionally cackle with malice or make a remark about “something narsty in the woodshed”. Forget Spider-Man 4, Sam – what we need is a franchise for gypsy geriatric Sylvia Ganush.

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James’ previous column can be found here.