Since it was so lovely and sunny at the weekend, and the streets of London were full of young folk having al fresco fun with bottled beer and wraparound sunglasses, I took the curmudgeon's option and went to see the new Sam Raimi film, Drag Me To Hell. When everyone else is in Bermuda shirts and Rockport deck shoes, I prefer a feast of gore and grossness, and horrible faces going "BOO!" at nervous young women in skimpy halter-tops. Everyone needs a hobby.
It was great fun, as horror films go, despite being rather derivative and ignorant. The idea of a curse whose victim can pass it on physically to someone else harks back to Tourneur's Night of the Demon (1957) which itself leant heavily on MR James's story, Casting the Runes (1904.) The demon which is summoned to drag poor Caroline the bank-loan adviser (Alison Lohman) into Hades, after three days of torture, is called the Lamia and appears as a malevolent, shape-changing goat; but as any fule kno, Lamia was a female phantom with whom Greek and Roman parents used to scare the crap out of their children. In mythology she was a Libyan queen whom Jupiter fancied; but his jealous wife Juno stole her children; thereafter, she revenged herself by enticing and murdering random kids. Nowhere in my wide researches has Lamia ever featured in a bank-loan scenario. Keats wrote a poem about her as a seductive snake-woman, but at no point did he drag in goats.
The film's main drawback, however, is its startling attitude to eastern-European ladies of swarthy demeanour. It is, to put it bluntly, the worst PR job for gypsies I've ever seen. I'm not sure if the film calls the mad old woman at its centre an actual Romany, but all the reviews I've read instantly identify her as such. The thick Slavic vowels, the mad blind eye, the filthy talons, the widow's shawl and the lacy kerchief on which she spreads her false teeth – all suggest a bad-babushka fright-figure from somewhere west of the Urals – not quite Russian, but from a region associated with horrible deeds, the type once witnessed in Bosnian and Kosovan conflicts.
Film-makers seem a little chary at present of giving audiences specifically Middle Eastern or Muslim baddies; but they've few qualms about using spooky old dames from the former Soviet Union for the purpose. And here's a thing – if you can give them some clairvoyant properties, everyone will assume they're looking at a gypsy. Because it's what gypsies do, isn't it? Read the future, demand payment, get their palms crossed with silver and bear grudges. And when we watch the batso old dame brandishing a concrete block, or clamping her huge, toothless, screaming mouth on the milkmaid-blonde American girl's, unleashing a torrent of slugs and insects down her throat, it'll be a nice, subliminal way of telling the young: don't trust gypsies, they're odd and scary, they're from violent and lawless parts of the world and they're out to subvert the nice, peaches-and-vanilla, all-American girl, throw her around the walls, mess up her flat and plunge her into a revolting muddy grave.
Nasty. There's a telling scene in which the heroine goes to visit the crone in order to placate her, but finds a funeral in progress and a cruelly beautiful Slavic girl sneers at Caroline. She is allowed to walk round the parlour – only to find herself collapsed on the floor with the corpse on top of her. Don't even think, the scenario says, of trying to reason with these people; even when they're dead they're disgusting. It amounts to a startlingly comprehensive piece of cultural stereotyping, some way beyond warning people against the ladies with sprigs of lucky lavender outside Barcelona airport.
I thought Western attitudes to gypsies had changed a bit since Hitler sent 1.5 million of them to the gas chambers for being, in his sober analysis, a rabble of thieves and decadent vagabonds. I thought the last decade had seen celebrations of Roma culture, from the Gypsy folk ensembles of London to the music of Gogol Bordello, from Louise Doughty's novel sequence about her Roma heritage to the late Ian Dury's pride at wearing a piece of his mother's gypsy lace round his neck. It's rather shocking that Sam Raimi and his producers felt they could get away with demonising a whole race of enterprising nomads for the sake of a cheap gory laugh.