Monday, October 19, 2015

Spooktacular Savings #14: Steven Spielberg's SOMETHING EVIL (1972)

"It's ok, Stevie.  It's only a bad dream." - Mother to little boy.


Let's be honest, folks.  If it wasn't for the name that comes with this, how many of us would seen it out?  I'm not sure if I would, just given the premise, unless if I was super hot on the look-out for stories dealing with possessed houses involving the devil.  Or maybe if I suddenly became a Darren McGavin or Sandy Dennis completest.  But no, this is Mr. Steven Spielbergo, getting his feet wet in the horror/supernatural genre, as a hired-gun in TV world.  And, lo and behold, coming off of the film that would start to give him major buzz as a Wonderkind in Hollywood... he's the best thing to happen to this.

And yet it's so very peculiar (as if it were fate... ::as I scooch very slowly away from the computer in terror::) - this story has a ring to it that may be familiar.  A family moves into a new house that seems so idyllic, and it's a family that has that good ol' Average American Make-up: father (McGavin), mother (Dennis) and two kids.  But there's something rather strange about the house, and also about the barn just right by: sounds of a baby crying in the middle of the night, but there's no baby; a malicious, uh, jar full of weird red and green goo; a couple leaving the party that the couple throws gets attacked and dies in a fiery crash (ok, this last one is fucking hilarious, I'm sorry, but it is, but I digress).

And Spielberg's off camera like, 'Hey, be thankful I'm not Kubrick on The Shining, aight?'
Looks like things are haunted.  Yelp.  Ten years after Something Evil, Spielberg would write and produce/ghost-direct (ho-ho) Poltergeist, about a family terrorized by demonic forces.  So if you get the sense, as I did, that this film - as another 'Movie of the Week' - is an unintentional test run for what he would later bring the world with his suburban brand of spooktacular shenanigans, it's there to see.  And the reason Spielberg is the thing that works best for this material is that the material is not very strong.  It's not a garbage script, and certain lines given to some of the characters are fine (McGavin it seems most of all, but Ralph Bellamy as the Old Man Down the Road who has experience with this sort of thing for some reason).  But it's not particularly original or exciting in any way.  It is what it is: a piece of pulp for those watching at home and couldn't find a babysitter to go out for the night.

Yet Spielberg does the only thing a director in his position can do: hire some good actors (whether he was directly responsible or if it was also or just the producer's call, who knows), and then make things suspenseful as possible with the pacing and how the camera is used.  When I mention Poltergeist it may sound like I'm being cute, but Something Evil is very much like a student filmmaker tackling material from the Poltergeist handbook, and this includes how simple and natural the characters relate early on - again, McGavin and Dennis make the best of dialog that is just ok and, actually, improve it just by not forcing much - and then how crazy things get, step by step.  The camerawork is a mix of Spielberg's usual one-shot method, and then cut-ins that have some warped close-ups and cuts that can get jagged.

Either that devil is casting a spell, or he really has to hold in the shit he has to take...
For those who check out this film - which is, by the way, very brisk at 73 minutes, to the point where I almost wish it were five minutes longer so as to give a little more background about this boilerplate "devil" - take the scene where the son goes outside and gets 'lost' for a minute.  Sandy Dennis goes out into this big patch of what seem like bushes, calling "Stevie! Steven! Stevie!" over and over again.  The cuts come fast and ferocious, and it makes the shark attacking the Orca at the end of Jaws look like a Bresson picture.  The cutting here veers on being possibly too fast, with the angles on the characters so warped that you want to say 'Don't try SO hard'.  But I don't even think it's Spielberg trying to compensate for something missing in the script; to him, this is just the proper way to tell this story, with real jagged edges and nerves all strewn about.  For those who sometimes see this filmmaker as being too 'safe', here he takes some chances with his approach.

Not all of it works; when I say that a particular car accident is hysterical, I mean it in an unintentional way (unless if it isn't, but it's not the sense of humor that is the same as when, say, the McGavin character is directing the actress in the commercial on the farm, which is slight and clever and kinda cute and whatever, let's move on).  And I still think that the aspect of the 'Devil', how and why it's attacking this family - that they're living Godlessly because of ::gasp:: having some drinks with friends at night after moving in, or that the guy nearby doesn't spread enough chicken blood on the farm - or why it attacked the family there before.... I guess is a 'Suspension of Disbelief' thing.

But it does hamper what could have been a better film, maybe (just barely) on the level of Poltergeist.  And some of it is dated in that 70's way; another thing with the script is making the McGavin character more of a distant workaholic later-era-Mad-Men jerk, with his stupid big fancy ad job and that he can't come home to the wife and kids who need him to protect from demonic forces and yada yada, w when he starts off fairly easy-going and amusing in a sarcastic-tonal way.

In other words, it's no Duel.  But is it scary?  I must admit being dragged into the suspense of the moments when they did arrive, how Spielberg deftly would track the camera from Dennis going one spot to another, or would get an angle on a character trying to get by at the door (Bellamy's character's nephew, who of course is the "I blame YOU for coming here that the devil is here, etc").  Something Evil has a script that is at best just alright and passable and at worst is hackneyed.

Spielberg is very much in Proving-Myself mode (this is pre Sugarland Express, let alone Jaws), and for him this project means making things really POP and matter.  So he directs his actors as well as he can, and they rise above the material, and meanwhile his technical wizardry is already on display in moments like the mother becoming 'abusive' to her son and she can't control herself, or, especially, the climax where the devil gets full-blown ATTACK style in the son's bedroom.  There's even shots that seem like they were later aped wholesale for Poltergeist, and it's... cool!  No other words for it, really.

Despite all the script's issues, I bought into this woman's dwindling hope and sanity at this farmhouse, and because it's such a quick watch the upside is not dwelling too long on what doesn't work.  There's punch here and impact and daring-do with camera and editing and performance, and it shows a filmmaker ready to distinguish himself from the pack.  It's a directorial tour-de-force in the midst of what would otherwise be plain mediocrity.


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