Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on August 8, 2013
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.
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.
The 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.
Top: Images from SOMETHING EVIL (1972)
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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