Friday, 11 March 2011

Something Evil (1972)

Prior to becoming the Film Director who Conquered the Planet, Steven Spielberg made off-beat small-scale films, mostly for television, that in some ways are more interesting than a lot of his more recent, bloated mega-movies.  There was DUEL (1971), of course, which is an object lesson in how to create tension and fear with limited means; there was THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974), a free-wheelin' road movie, a few TV episodes (notably COLUMBO (1971)) and this, SOMETHING EVIL, a rural horror movie.

The family unit (or surrogate), its division and reunification has been a pretty constant theme in Spielberg's films - for example JAWS (1975), CLOSE ENCOUNTERS (1977), INDIANA JONES & THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984), JURASSIC PARK (1993) and CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002), to name but a few.  He is also noted for featuring children in significant roles, with their rescue from perilous situations serving as the catalyst for the family unit being made whole again.  So it's interesting to note these themes in SOMETHING EVIL, made before his career really hit the big time.

It tells the story of a happily married couple (Sandy Dennis and Darren McGavin) who move to a rural home in upstate New York and gradually come to believe that the house is built on evil land, the spirit of which is trying to destroy them.  It is principally Sandy Dennis's character who experiences the strange goings on, as her husband is shown to be a loving but career-driven figure who is absent when he is most needed.  This shown to be a wedge which drives them apart until the final reckoning when, at the behest of two gruff but kindly old men (Ralph Bellamy and Jeff Corey), he returns from work to help his wife save their children.

Spielberg made better versions of this story later in his career, refining it and altering some of the elements to make it more effective.  Sandy Dennis was adept at playing neurotic or insecure characters so the 'normality' of the family's home life, which is thrown into turmoil by the eruption of supernatural, isn't as normal as it could have been had her part been played by, say, JoBeth Williams.  Similarly, their eldest child - the focus of the demonic events - is a bit odd-looking, which kinds of tips you off that something isn't quite right at the outset.  Ironically, the film in which Spielberg got these elements exactly right was POLTERGEIST (1982), which he isn't credited as having directed (although various sources claim his involvement as producer was very hands on).

It's tempting to read the film as a depiction of a bored housewife's mental disintegration - which in part it is - but I think the supernatural elements are made too explicit for that to have any real validity.  It's shot in the typically 'flat' US TV style - that's a term I use to describe the harshly lit and drab-looking appearance that a lot of US TV movies of this period suffered from.  However, there are one or two directorial flourishes which mark Spielberg out as being talented.  He also gets a very good performance from Sandy Dennis - she's not everyone's cup of tea but she's really good in this, a sort of all-American mom on the outside but a barely suppressed paranoid schizophrenic on the inside.  I also liked the casting of Darren McGavin as the sceptical husband; I'm not sure of the exact timings but I think this movie was made after McGavin had scored a big hit with another supernatural TV movie - THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) - in which he played the exact opposite: the one man in the city who believes in the forces of darkness.

A note about the version I saw: some joker had superimposed the words "The Red Goo!" over crucial moments in the film, and added his own sound effects to a couple of sequences.  Not clever.

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