Telefilm Time Machine: Steven Spielberg’s SOMETHING EVIL (1972)

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I recently sat through James Wan’s THE CONJURING (2013). I haven’t particularly liked anything else the director’s done but being a horror film aficionado myself, I assumed that all the critical praise and fanfare the movie was receiving meant that that it would probably deliver a few good thrills and chills. It is being hailed as one of the “scariest movies ever made” in some circles so it couldn’t be all that bad, right? Unfortunately I was very wrong. While THE CONJURING is obviously working some kind of magic on a large percentage of viewers I personally found this utterly predictable throwback to ‘70s horror cinema so clichéd, schmaltzy, devoid of compelling characters, lacking in atmosphere and flat out boring that I almost walked out of the theater midway through the movie. It seemed to be a poorly concocted smorgasbord of jump scares borrowed from much better films (THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, THE EXORCIST, THE HAUNTING, THE CHANGELING, THE BIRDS, HALLOWEEN, THE ORPHANAGE, EVIL DEAD, Etc.) that left me desperately hungry for something more tasty and fulfilling. Afterward I decided to cleanse my palate with a genuine ‘70s thriller about a family tormented by ghosts and combating demonic possession directed by Steven Spielberg called SOMETHING EVIL (1972). This low-budget telefilm rarely gets any attention by Spielberg fans or horror enthusiasts who seem to prefer DUEL (1971) or his later attempt at producing a supernatural thriller, POLTERGEIST (1982). But in some ways I think that SOMETHING EVIL is superior to them both. Why? Read on and I’ll tell you.

While the unlikely premise and tense execution of Steven Spielberg’s DUEL has rightfully earned it a solid place in telefilm history, SOMETHING EVIL has quietly faded into obscurity. This is partially due to the fact that unlike DUEL, SOMETHING EVIL wasn’t released in theaters and for some incomprehensible reason this briskly paced made-for-TV movie has never been officially released on video or DVD although bootleg copies are readily available. The differences between the two films can be found in the focus and execution. Whereas DUEL emphasizes action and centers on one lone individual, SOMETHING EVIL focuses on a family unit while relying on mood and atmosphere to generate terror. And although it suffers from the same problems that afflict many telefilms from the period (cheap special effects, television content restraints, minimal production values, etc.), SOMETHING EVIL benefits from Spielberg’s self-assured direction and a strong cast that includes Sandy Dennis, Darren MacGavin, Ralph Bellamy, Johnny Whitaker, Jeff Corey and John Rubinstein.

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Like many of the best supernatural thrillers, SOMETHING EVIL begins with an unwitting family buying an old isolated house with a dubious history. This time the family is made up of an artistically inclined mother (Sandy Dennis), a father who happens to be a TV producer (Darren MacGavin) and their two young children (Johnny Whitaker and Debbie/Sandy Lempert – twins playing the same role). Once they’ve settled into their new home their idyllic existence is immediately threatened by the previous owner, a gruff farmer (Jeff Corey) who yammers on about magical pentagrams and is occasionally spotted killing chickens in their front yard. This causes the inherently squeamish and prickly Sandy Dennis to become slightly unhinged while Darren MacGavin takes it all in stride and seems to be calmly rehearsing for his upcoming role in A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983). Dennis’ character becomes particularly distressed after hearing eerie child-like voices coming from the barn and discovering a shed full of what looks like soul jars (or spirit jars) typically used in archaic magic rituals. When a house party ends violently with two coworkers dying in a suspicious car accident, Dennis decides to turn to their neighbor (Ralph Bellamy) for help but a series of strange events and a general sense of unease continue to plague the family. Things come to an explosive end after it’s discovered that the oldest child has managed to become possessed by an evil entity that can only be expelled by his mother’s love.

CBS_Late_MovieThe film occasionally suffers from an overwrought score composed by Wladimir Selinsky, which is all too typical of Spielberg and it evokes many of the themes that the director would become associated with later on in his career. Broken or damaged families forced back together by a string of extreme or uncanny incidents is characteristic of Spielberg as well as an unengaged or absent father and a mother forced into the role of protector and provider. You can see the seeds of films such as JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, EMPIRE OF THE SUN and POLTERGEIST beginning to sprout in this low-budget made-for-TV movie and it incorporates many of Spielberg’s trademark directing techniques including extreme close-ups, the use of mirrors and low height tracking shots. One standout scene takes place at a party that is filmed without interruption in a lengthy master shot as Spielberg’s camera captures all the human interactions, weaving in and out of crowded rooms and rarely stopping to rest, which is unusual to see in a ‘70s telefilm. And the special effects in SOMETHING EVIL, which include the use of strong winds that threaten to carry the characters away, signal the occurrence of something supernatural and were later used in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, POLTERGEIST and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. SOMETHING EVIL also has the distinction of being the first film that Spielberg collaborated on with cinematographer Bill Butler, who would later work with him on JAWS.

In light of these facts it’s not too surprising that this forgotten telefilm contains some incredibly eerie moments and was able to maintain a high level of suspense that lasts throughout the film. Spielberg was also able to create an atmosphere of undeniable dread even though he was obviously handicapped by the production restraints and a limited budget. And while it might be easy to dismiss this as just another run of the mill made-for-TV movie cashing in on the ‘family in spiritual crisis’ craze that dominated horror cinema throughout the ‘70s, it’s important to point out that SOMETHING EVIL was released a year before THE EXORCIST and 4 years before THE OMEN and CARRIE hit theaters. It’s also worth mentioning that the house used as the setting for SOMETHING EVIL bears a striking resemblance to the haunted Amityville home and there’s a memorable scene in Spielberg’s thriller involving demonic red eyes peering through a window that was repeated in AMITYVILLE HORROR. It’s probably just a coincidence but I couldn’t shake the feeling of familiarity that washed over me while I was watching and I started wondering if the Lutz family (owners of the Amityville property) and the Warrens (the paranormal investigators associated with the Amityville haunting and were most recently seen in THE CONJURING) had watched SOMETHING EVIL one too many times before agreeing to write a book based on their “demonic experiences” with author Jay Anson.

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Top: Images from SOMETHING EVIL (1972)
Bottom: Images from THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979)

SOMETHING EVIL originally aired on The CBS Late Movie in January of 1972 and seems to have received little critical attention but got decent ratings, which led to further TV work for Spielberg. Dave Kaufman of the Daily Variety complained that it was “stressing weird special effects more than characterization” and emphasized that “Spielberg displays a keen awareness of numerous techniques but not of [the] importance of vivid emotional involvement.” I can’t exactly argue with his criticisms but I found the family surprisingly sympathetic and appreciated the ending of this demonic drama, which doesn’t rely on religious dogma to tie things together. Instead, it suggests that the power of a mother’s unconditional love can rescue her household from superstitious neighbors and some unknown threat determined to destroy their domestic bliss. To be frank, I often have trouble with Spielberg’s all too sentimental view of the American family but in SOMETHING EVIL it works for me. This human element makes it a more interesting film than DUEL and the condensed plot and quick pacing manage to make it more entertaining than POLTERGEIST, which seem to drag and grate with each subsequent viewing. And who doesn’t want to see little Johnny Whitaker (the adorable redheaded imp from FAMILY AFFAIR and TOM SAWYER) playing a possessed kid hurling insults at his mother? He’s an early amalgamation of Regan in THE EXORCIST, Carrie from CARRIE and Damien of OMEN fame and if you’re a horror fan, that’s worth 73 minutes of your time.

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18 Responses Telefilm Time Machine: Steven Spielberg’s SOMETHING EVIL (1972)
Posted By Bhob D : August 8, 2013 6:42 pm

Thank you for reminding people of this gem! To this day I am still haunted by the creepy image of floating, possessed Johnny “Be damned” Whitaker! This is another CBS favorite along with “Black Noon”!

Posted By DevlinCarnate : August 8, 2013 7:03 pm

i only have very vague memories of this,but the prospect of a cast consisting of Sandy Dennis,who shined in films displaying her quirky (in a good way) neurosis,Darren MacGavin pre-Kolchak and Christmas Story,and of course good old Ralph Bellamy post Rosemary’s Child,and the coup de grace,Johnny Whitaker as a possessed demon child,makes this sound intriguing,and as a telefilm of it’s time i’m sure it breezes along without commercials in under an hour and a half…i’ll have to see if i can find this online somewhere…thanks again for highlighting this particular sub-genre of film that often gets overlooked,but in actuality was a training ground for directors stretching out from episodic TV on B level budgets

Posted By Moviebuff : August 8, 2013 7:14 pm

Hey all, I found this on youtube.

Posted By Gene : August 8, 2013 10:50 pm

Another great post about an all-too obscure film Kimberly! I need to get all of these and spend a weekend reminiscing about how far superior 1970s TV horror flicks were to the (all too often) contrived bunk of contemporary cinema. I recently saw High Tension, 10 years after. All I can say is “What Tension”??

As to Spielberg, I too have been lukewarm about his “family” films but considering the angst he went through as a child I can understand it too. Nonetheless, he is a true talent when he gets away from overt sentiment. …And Bhob D, thanks for mentioning Black Noon. I fell asleep when it originally aired and have always wondered about what I missed :(

Posted By Gene : August 8, 2013 10:59 pm

Forgive me for being a bit off-topic, but I just read that Karen Black passed away. I will always remember her for her quirky and beautifully original persona and Five Easy Pieces. But to tie it in with ’70s horror who can forget Trilogy of Terror and Dan Curtis’ uneven but likeable Burnt Offerings. RIP, Karen Black.

Posted By Emgee : August 9, 2013 3:41 am

Cartman was right; ginger kids are evil…..
Thanks for dusting off this unknown Spielberg film; sounds worth a look indeed.

Posted By James : August 9, 2013 11:38 am

As a horror buff, I was also hugely disappointed with The Conjuring. I thought Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell (which, to be fair, also looks back to older horror films, only with much better style) was a superior film that didn’t fare nearly as well at the box office.

Posted By Glenn G. : August 9, 2013 7:06 pm

Actually, SOMETHING EVIL premiered on “The CBS Friday Night Movies” (9pm Eastern/8pm Central) on January 21, 1972. “The CBS Late Movie” itself didn’t premiere until February 14, 1972, though SOMETHING EVIL did appear on the CBS Late Movie several times during the 70s.

Posted By The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for week of August 9 | Parallax View : August 9, 2013 9:41 pm

[…] writing on Dwan, say, but is a positive flood compared to what came before. Also at Movie Morlocks, Kimberly Lindbergs looks back at one of the more obscure entries in Steven Spielberg’s filmography, the TV movie Something […]

Posted By jennifromrollamo : August 9, 2013 11:20 pm

Hey- I have a ginger-haired son and man do we get tired of the “gingers have no souls” jokes! Thanks for the write-up of this movie,Kimberly. I have to also admit that in from the pics you posted, before I began reading your post, I thought Sandy Dennis was the family’s teen daughter, not Darren McGavin’s wife! She looks too young to be his wife or Whittaker’s mom!

Posted By Michael Ritchie : August 11, 2013 9:37 am

Hey, BhobD, glad someone else remembers Black Noon. I found it recently on YouTube, where I’ll be looking for Something Evil as well. Too bad some company can’t snatch up the rights to some of the better 70s TV-movies and either release them cheaply on burn-on-demand DVD or streaming.

Posted By Doug : August 11, 2013 1:31 pm

Jenni,I’m with you on this: Gingers DO have souls!
(the ones they’ve collected from others). ;)
And you touch on a personal sticking point-Sandy Dennis appearing too young to be Darrin MacGavin’s wife. I think that a 50 year old man should have a wife of the same age if a couple is supposed to be realistically ‘a couple’.
Why do older men in films have beautiful younger wives? Fantasy.
Films sell fantasy. Some vain actors might demand that their co-star be younger so that they can be assumed to be ‘younger’.
I think it wouldn’t hurt a film if, when we see a Chloë Grace Moretz married to a Mel Gibson, someone in the cast, a first wife, a business partner, the best friend-someone should voice dismay at the union. Not simply accept that such a marriage is common or usual.

Posted By swac44 : August 12, 2013 12:00 pm

I like to think that I was making up for the imbalance when I was in a long-term relationship with a woman 10 years my senior…but for some reason you never see that in a film, unless the younger man is some sort of conniving gigolo or something.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : August 12, 2013 11:07 pm

I have also noticed in many tv commercials, aimed at selling medical products or life insurance or investments, that the husband can look like he is in his 70s but his wife always looks like she is 50! My husband likes to joke that he doesn’t see a problem with the mismatched ages. Commercial producers would never show a woman in her 70s with a husband in his 50s.

Posted By CJ Brown / Darkamor : August 13, 2013 3:14 pm

For all THE CONJURING fanboys (and fangirls); while it may be one of the better horror films of this generation? It is nothing compared to THE CHANGELING (1980), THE ENTITY (1982), or GHOST STORY (1981) ….

To be fair? At least THE CONJURING got a theatrical release (most horror films these days go straight-to-disc via a low budget tactic to cash in immediately without spending $ on a theatrical distribution) ….

My favorite horror film this year? AMERICAN MARY (2012) – a Canadian horror film written and directed by The Soska Sisters!

http://twistedtwinsproductions.net/americanmary.htm

Posted By robbushblog : August 14, 2013 4:06 pm

I actually liked The Conjuring. For me, it did harken back to the old 70′s horror movies. The horror movies back then were so much better than the horror movies of today. Watching The Conjuring was like putting on an old, comfortable, hand-me-down blanket.

As a ginger, I can attest that we indeed do not have souls. Johnny Whitaker is further proof. I would still like to see this movie though.

And Darren McGavin was only 15 years older than Sandy Dennis. That’s not that bad. He was 17 years older than Melinda Dillon and look how great the two of them were together.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : August 15, 2013 11:56 am

A few years after she made this, Sandy Dennis played Maggie the Cat in a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Ogunquitt Playhouse in Maine. Brick was David Selby from Dark Shadows. And seated in the audience: me.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : August 15, 2013 5:43 pm

I’ve been really busy this month so I haven’t had much time to comment but just wanted to step in and say thanks for all the feedback! I’s great to hear from others who like SOMETHING EVIL. And I appreciate Glenn’s clarification on “CBS Friday Night Movies” vs. “The CBS Late Movie.”

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