When it’s on: Tuesday, 8 March (4.30 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
When putting together this site’s Steven Spielberg from Worst to Best article last year, I knew I was missing a couple of his made-for-TV movies off the list. I included Duel, which I justified thanks to its theatrical release in Europe, but the truth was I just like the film and thought it more than merited its place in the list. Two other titles, Savage and Something Evil, were omitted because I simply couldn’t get hold of copies. Neither appears to be available on DVD, and indeed where the former’s concerned it seems to have more or less vanished from existence. What I didn’t think to check on, though, was YouTube, where it turns out Something Evil is available to watch in full. Given its appearance on the Horror Channel, I thought it might be nice to see what we can learn from this semi-forgotten supernatural offering.
Among the extras on my Duel DVD, Spielberg talks about moving from making that to The Sugarland Express as though nothing else happened in between. Not true, of course. If his aim was to put some distance between himself and the two further micro-budgeted films he made then I’d argue he’s doing his own work on Something Evil a disservice. Sure, it’s cheaply made and it’s a long way from perfect. The suggestion that Poltergeist (which Spielberg co-wrote and produced) came as a glossier update of this material is hard to shake off, yet as with many TV fright flicks it isn’t without merit. I remember being terrified as a child watching the likes of Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, Dark Night of the Scarecrow and, most of all, Don’t go to Sleep. The latter, with its meditations on guilt all leading to that delicious twist in the final frame, pretty much ensured that I was unable to defy the film’s title. Like Something Evil, these titles were made on television budgets, but that meant the slack was taken up with atmosphere and suspense, which they all have in spades. Incidentally, for real fans of the form this entry also hands a starring role to Darren McGavin, who’s perhaps best known for his lead performances in the Kolchak series (two TV movies and a run of twenty episodes). As a mixture of gritty urban crime and horror, they’re well worth checking out.
Of course, the real reason for watching Something Evil is to see the formative work of Spielberg, to spot clues in it of the director responsible for some of the world’s biggest films honing his skills. On the surface, there’s little evidence of that here. The film uses next to nothing in terms of special effects, unless you include the technical wizardry that went into placing two glowing yellow eyes in a few frames. What it does have is a mounting sense of dread, palpable unease, all nicely teased out in several ways.
The film’s a short one, running for little over seventy minutes. Its plot is therefore understandably slight. McGavin, his wife Sandy Dennis and their two young children move into a farm house that’s well outside the bustle of New York. He’s the classic working man, an advertising executive who pulls long hours at the office and often leaves his family at home alone. Sandy admires the strange symbol she sees painted over the barn door and starts copying it in her own artwork, fashioning good luck charms. She’s told it’s a symbol of good luck, a token to ward away evil spirits. What she doesn’t know is that it was painted there to protect against ‘devils’ that reside inside the house, that the previous occupant threw himself from the hayloft rather than succumb to being possessed. Soon enough, she starts hearing strange noises in the middle of the night, the cries and whimpers of a very young child. The barn is filled with jars of strange luminescent goo that pulsates and unsettles her. The behaviour of her oldest child, Stevie (Johnny Whitaker) deteriorates and she reacts more violently than normal. A couple of friends die in a horrible car crash after attending a party at the house. Steadily, Sandy’s own spirits descend as she starts to feel she’s losing control of her own sanity.
Something Evil was made a year before The Exorcist was released, but after William Peter Blatty’s novel was published, and there’s undoubtedly a link in terms of the possession storyline, though it’s one that’s easily resolved by the film’s end. The cheapness is an issue. It has none of The Exorcist’s astonishing special effects, the visible sight of a young girl becoming the corrupted vessel for a demonic host. Instead, everything’s done with askew camera work, unsettling filming angles that emphasise the feeling that all isn’t well, often from a distance to give the impression of characters being watched by something unseen. A lot depends on the acting, Sandy Dennis’s rather brilliant portrayal of a woman being unravelled emotionally by an entity she can’t understand and doesn’t easily believe in. As the story progresses she seems to age, and she becomes jumpier and more abrupt with every ambient sound. There’s a great supporting role for Ralph Bellamy, here playing an expert on Devilry who advises Sandy on how she can cope with and defeat the spirits she becomes convinced are in her home. Bellamy’s presence comes as a neat wink to his part in Rosemary’s Baby, where he portrayed one of the Devil worshippers.
Other moments work less well. John Rubinstein plays Bellamy’s son, and has a couple of scenes in which he seems to turn up for no reason, says his piece to Sandy and then simply walks away, plus another where he appears to be making a grab for her baby girl only to exit when he hears her approaching. It’s a bizarre little performance and suggests a number of scenes that wound up on the cutting room floor. Some of the evil things tormenting Sandy’s character are a bit on the weak side, notably the jars of goo, which by their very strangeness are objects of abject terror for her though they don’t threaten and never do anything. The intimation is of a script that’s determined to throw every potential scare at audiences, hoping that bits stick; it misses the more assured hand of Richard Matheson, who of course wrote the taut and mounting in suspense screenplay for Duel.
But on the whole, I admit I found it a suitably uncomfortable viewing experience. For all the film’s shortcomings, it worked well in places, such as when McGavin is presented with some cells of footage he’s filmed outside the house and a pair of strange yellow eyes appear in the frames, for no reason that anyone can understand. Despite Sandy’s evident breakdown, there are signs like this that suggest what she’s experiencing isn’t a consequence of her own fragile mental state, and the film’s closing twist confirms that. There are some traditional tropes of Spielberg’s work that are in evidence here – the dysfunctional family, troubled children having a tough time, absent fathers – if you want to look for them; otherwise it’s a neat little frightener that more often than not hits its mark.
Something Evil: ***