May 11, 2011

Something Evil (1972)

"A young couple moves into a farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania. What they don't know is that there is an unseen presence in the house, and that it wants to take possession of the wife."

The IMDb description of this early Steven Spielberg TV horror film is wrong for so many reasons that I have to explain what they are before moving on. For a start, I don't think you could really describe the odd pairing of Darren McGavin and (admittedly younger) Sandy Dennis as a young couple. Secondly, the unseen presence is not confined to the house and it isn't unseen or even unheard either. Does it want to take possession of the wife? Well, I saw no evidence of that but maybe.

I'd seen "Something Evil" being shown on late night TV so many times in the late '80s and early '90s that I was convinced that ITV had run out of money for new films. Actually, one year it was shown three times by TVS which got bought out by Meridian so I must have been right.

Anyway, "Something Evil" has always been one of my favourite Steven Spielberg films not just because it's a "Spielberg" but because it's one of the weirdest horror stories that you could imagine. It's a bizarre mix of a standard haunted house story with possession thrown in which ends with a real vomit-inducing, sickly sweet cop out.

As yet another TV movie without a real trailer available from YouTube (where, once again, you can watch the whole thing if you haven't already seen it) or an official DVD release, I feel justified in giving a more spoiler heavy review than usual.

Basically, the Wordens (Paul, Marjorie and their two little kids) decide to move from the big city to an old farmhouse in the countryside. Even though geographically I suspect that they are supposed to be in the North East of Pennsylvania due to Paul's commuting to work in New York city every day, I think that it was all filmed in California.

While Paul (Darren McGavin) is away doing whatever advertising people do, Marjorie (Sandy Dennis) is left alone with the two brats and spends her time being uselessly artistic until "something evil" starts screaming like a baby from the barn. At first I thought it was a cat based on a blink-and-you'll-miss-it scene in the introduction where the kids are playing with some kittens. I'm not entirely sure that the sound isn't of a cat howling to begin with either until it turns into the most annoying noise on the planet. No, I don't like babies, their noise, their smell or anything about children at all so I would have been disappointed if all Sandy Dennis had found was an abandoned sprog.

Of course, even though she's completely alone without "Kolchak" to protect her, the late Sandy Dennis' character still has to embarrassingly venture out alone to see where the sounds are coming from with all the suspense and tension that you can pack into a walk from one wooden building to another. What she discovers is a jar of red goo which lights up and screams even louder. I don't know about you but I would have taken it straight to a TV station and made myself uber famous but, since this is a horror movie, our heroine just runs away terrified.

Now as much as Sandy Dennis is trouser-arousingly easy on the eye in a proto Ashley Judd way, I really found her Marjorie character to be very annoying. Apart from calling her husband at work (probably 300 miles away!) every five minutes and hysterically wanting him to come home immediately, she then gets involved in all sorts of bogus looking pentagram-painting and talisman-making escapades. Aye, she's all about the arts and crafts.

All this is pretty tame stuff really though until people start dying. In typical TV movie fashion, a couple of morally vacuous victims are set-up for an obligatory exploding car death which is only vaguely interesting because of its unexpected placement and the bad cut to the Worden's reaction to the news of their demise.

Other tropes include an old knowledgeable neighbour who provides a bit of history and help as well as his overly familiar son who does the same. In Classical terms they would be the chorus providing the exposition and so it's clear that Spielberg was still learning his craft at this point. A quick comparison with "Poltergeist" (1982) shows how he later abandoned that use of types as he also reworked this entire story.

Although it is easily possible to watch "Something Evil" without thinking ahead to Spielberg's later horror (and sometimes horrible) efforts, there are a lot of typical Spielberg elements in this film including a pre-occupation with family, cutely ugly kids, and a "love conquers evil" ending which makes you want to put your foot through the TV screen.

I'm just going to ruin the ending completely by telling you that the evil presence that makes the strawberry jam scream eventually possesses the Worden's son Stevie (Johnny Whitaker). You won't see that twist coming at all no matter how astute you are. You also certainly won't guess at the lame way the kid is exorcised even though I've already told you.

Since you have no reason to watch this now (but I know you'll want to anyway), I'll just mention that "Something Evil" is most remembered for containing a scene of "Spirit Photography" which was even more popular in the '70s than the crap about orbs on all those faked paranormal TV shows today. The "revealing something nasty which nobody noticed until the pictures were developed" routine found its way into a lot of famous '70s movies including "The Omen" (1976) where it was a major plot device. I'm sure that there is a shorter name for it and one day I might look it up but, for now, all I need to say about it is that it was a more glaringly obvious contrivance than the glowing eyes themselves.

From all this, you are probably thinking that I'm not going to recommend "Something Evil". Well, au contraire, I'm going to surprise you all by sticking this in The Vault. Although I believe "Something Evil" to be a weaker film than Steven Spielberg's far less supernatural TV movie "Duel" (1971), it provides a great insight into the early creativity of a now world famous filmmaker whether you like his later stuff or not. It even has a few good scares too.

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