Written by: Robert Clouse
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Darren McGavin, Sandy Dennis, and Ralph Bellamy
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Can you believe that I believe that the devil's in my house?"
The legend of Steven Spielberg has an almost mythic quality to it. He was a prodigy who earned praise doing grunt work on early TV gigs, where producers appreciated his efficiency enough to hand him the reins to Duel, a made-for-television production that he elevated into a remarkable thriller that garnered so much praise it wound up playing in theaters in many markets. Legend would have it that such success made him a natural fit for Jaws, the breakthrough that launched him to the revered status he’s enjoyed in the 45 years since. However, four years separated Duel and Jaws, and if we were to mythologize them, I suppose we’d refer to them as lost years spent wandering in the desert of television work and enduring a disappointing theatrical debut in The Sugarland Express. There’s a reason many considered Spielberg to be a risky, inexperienced pick for Jaws—sure, there was Duel, but there was also the likes of Something Evil, a fairly unremarkable TV movie that would likely be completely lost to time if not for its famous director flashing some of his early skills and a memorable cast.
But it’s also fair to say the general tepidness of Something Evil isn’t the fault of Spielberg or even the meager script written by Robert Clouse (who would also go onto greater things); rather, it’s the trappings of 70s made-for-TV productions that inevitably result in a pretty threadbare thriller. This is not to disparage all of the output of this landscape, but it’s easy to see how budgetary and FCC constraints can conspire to sink a familiar story involving a family that moves into an idyllic farmhouse, only to discover it’s haunted by something malevolent. We’ve seen it before, but this one does it with Sandy Dennis and Darren McGavin as the parents, Marjorie and Paul Worden. She’s an artist and he’s a television producer, and they can’t resist the rural Americana of it all. Sure, maybe the guy they bought it from is a little cagey, and maybe one of the neighbors (Ralph Bellamy) is a little too well-versed in demonology, but it’s immaculately cozy.
Until it isn’t, of course. The 73-minute runtime here means things go south fairly quickly, escalating from the locals’ bizarre behavior (a man slings a chicken around in a field as part of an apparent ritual) to a couple dying in a car accident following a party at the Worden house. It perhaps doesn’t help that Marjorie willingly brings occult texts into the house and reads from them, practically inviting the sinister forces haunting the place to wreak more havoc. Something Evil does not lack for incident, even if the incidents aren’t wildly compelling. Still, it manages a few moments, like an eerie, elliptical prologue that taps into something primal as a voice whispers in a howling wind, insisting to a farmer that he “shall be taken,” which sends the frantic man falling from his barn to an inexplicable demise. Later, Marjorie hears a baby wailing from the same barn, only to find the same howling wind and a mysterious jar full of crimson (or placental?) jelly. A visit from the neighbor’s nephew (John Rubenstein) grows increasingly tense as he questions Marjorie from her front porch, his eyes signaling a vague menace behind the chain lock. Paul, of course, remains skeptical that anything is wrong until some footage shot at the farm comes back and he spots a pair of eyes glowing from within the house. The shocks are quite sparse, and it says a lot that these minimalist bursts represent the most explicit frights Something Evil has to offer.
Because, ultimately, that brisk runtime is a double-edged sword. Sure, it ensures that the story doesn’t linger too long before the plot kicks in, but the plot also doesn’t have enough time to work up to anything substantial. Or at least not the plot device chooses to climax with, anyway. It turns out the spirit is particularly interested in possessing the family’s oldest child, leading to a hasty, windswept exorcism of sorts, which puts Something Evil at the crossroads of 70s Satanic panic. The Exorcist would of course do this much more memorably a year later, but it’s interesting to see a similar premise play out in the confines of prime time TV. Where William Friedkin could indulge it for all its schlocky, stomach-churning potential, Spielberg had to lean on frenetic camerawork and an overactive wind machine to create the impression of something horrible laying siege to this family. Predictably, it makes for a wildly different, less gripping effect, mostly because the entire ordeal ends just when the movie is threatening to do something besides merely dwell in suggestion. Instead, Something Evil ends as the type of movie where a pair of glowing eyes is the money shot.
But there’s something a little charming about that, if only because it evokes the bygone era of Universal subsisting on threadbare horror movies. By the end of the 50s, the studio’s usual fare—quickly produced chillers with plots as meager as their budgets—had fallen out of favor, and Universal leaned on a slew of Hammer imports throughout the next decade to maintain its grip on the American horror scene. The rise of television during that time eventually provided a natural place for those old horror movies to return, and Something Evil feels closer in spirit to that era than it does to its occult contemporaries. I have to wonder if this wasn’t the appeal of these prime time shockers: in an era where filmmakers had begun stretching the boundaries of horror on the big screen, perhaps small screen stuff like Something Evil offered milder, safer fare that recalled a cozier time for the genre. I find that a lot of these made-for-TV movies are delightfully spooky, if not a little hokey, and maybe that was the point.
Good luck ever getting Spielberg to confirm as much, though. It hasn’t been a frequent topic of discussion for him in the years since, and its absence on home video suggests he’s not exactly in a hurry to show it off. And it’s too bad—while it isn’t exactly some kind of Rosetta stone that clearly signals the greatness of a genius yet to come, there are flourishes and techniques that at least hint that Spielberg was always a natural filmmaker. From the dynamic camerawork (a scene where the camera weaves through a house party is especially noteworthy) to the natural performances he coaxes from the cast, it’s at least obvious that the skill was there. Even the subject matter foreshadows his frequent preoccupation with Americana under siege: Something Evil is like a Norman Rockwell painting smeared with dark shadows. In retrospect, it also feels like a dry run for the suburban horrors he’d help to unleash in Poltergeist a decade later, when he had the clout to bring such a vision into sharper focus. It would be a far cry from the rough draft nature of Something Evil, which ultimately feels a little bit too hazy and ambiguous to leave a mark.
It’s also worth noting that this hails from a brief era in Hollywood history where Spielberg was a hired hand working with a cast that eclipsed his own fame. While some viewers in January 1972 may have been eager to check out the next movie from the guy who made Duel, I suspect most were drawn in by the appearance of Dennis and McGavin. The latter especially would have suddenly been a hot commodity, having starred in The Night Stalker just ten days earlier, putting him on the path to becoming an iconic staple of both the big and small screens. He’s reliably sturdy in the role, and he resists the urge to play the dismayed, disbelieving husband too broadly—there’s a natural sweetness to this relationship that’s evident from the opening scene that keeps the rickety story afloat.
That’s also thanks in large part to Dennis, whose idiosyncratic turn suggests the influence of Rosemary’s Baby on the film; at times, it seems like the ambiguity is meant to work in concert with Marjorie’s eccentricity to create the impression that she’s simply losing her mind. Of course, there are too many objective clues—including that opening prologue that gives up the ghost, so to speak—that undermine such a possibility. Thankfully, that didn’t stop Dennis from giving an unsettling freak-out on camera that provides the film with the weird, off-kilter energy its rote narrative requires. Something Evil might be best known as a semi-lost Spielberg movie, but maybe we should call it what it is: a Sandy Dennis vehicle that allowed a young filmmaker to hitch along for the ride. You wouldn’t be able to say that about Spielberg projects much longer following this one because things turned out just fine after this minor small-screen hiccup.
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