A telemovie most notable as Steven Spielberg’s follow-up to Duel (1971), and another milestone on the young director’s frighteningly rapid rise up the industry totem pole, Something Evil undoubtedly showcases the young cinematic savant’s emergent talent and vivacity. But it’s also worth noting as a prototype for a modern branch of the horror film, the tale of ghostly haunting that revolves specifically around family angst and intensely metaphoric psychological anguish: Kim Darby’s trip into the black depths in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973), the familial auto-da-fes in the Amityville series, and the supernaturally claimed mothers of The Others (2001) and The Orphanage (2009) are anticipated here, as is, most obviously, Spielberg’s own writer-producer work Poltergeist (1982). The basis here however is Robert Clouse’s script, composed a year before Enter the Dragon (1973) defined Clouse forever as an action director, whilst Spielberg’s own gift for the destabilising menace of the horror style would also be obscured by his own success in, and temperamental accord with, more broadly appealing genres.
Sandy Dennis is Marjorie Worden, wife to advertising executive Paul (Darren McGavin), but with one foot still planted in the realm of airy, arty, slightly cuckoo bohemia. She’s a painter and arts-and-crafts wiz with a fascination for esoterica, like the design of an old home-craft cabalistic sign to ward off evil she spies affixed to the barn of a rural house she paints during a weekend trip. Taking a shine to the house, she talks a reluctant Paul into buying it, and they move in with their two kids, Stevie (Johnny Whitaker) and Laurie (Debbie and Sandy Lempert). Echoes here of John Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) and its similar meditation on folks fleeing urban decay for the sticks, only to find other forces of decay and disturbance working, and also anticipation of the Brodys' lot in Jaws (1975). The dogged power of folk traditions and city-country divides percolate in the story, but family problems are central here: references to Marjorie’s febrile psyche as the thing not talked about, with the potential to spark stiff-necked irritation in her husband, nudges the film into proto-feminism and tales of domestic suffering, even as the plot embraces irrationalism.
Idyllic repose seems possible in the new house at first; so ideal it is indeed that McGavin even turns it into a perfect set for an orange juice commercial celebrating bogus rusticity, except the model playing the corn-fed farm girl can’t sing the jingle, the recording equipment picks up strange sounds, and the mood seems subtly off, like a joke badly told. Marjorie becomes friends with a cooking writer, Harry Lincoln (Ralph Bellamy), who believes in the supernatural and feigns mild deafness to fend off the unsympathetic, and this in turn stirs the weak wrath of Harry’s solicitous nephew Ernest (John Rubinstein). Marjorie takes offence to her neighbour Gehrmann (Jeff Corey) sacrificing live chickens on her fields for the sake of warding off evil. A baby’s wails are heard in the night, luring Marjorie out repeatedly to investigate. Jars of perverse matter bubble and glow in recessed shelves of the barn, like carefully preserved remnants of black mass births. Windstorms roar out of nowhere to kill unwitting farmers. Two of the ad crew die in a car crash caused by a strange pulse of energy cracking their windscreen, and Marjorie begins to unravel as, similar fashion, strange impulses crack the fibre of her secure existence. But is she possessed by the devil that seems to lurk on the farm, or is she being driven crazy by the unseen force through another medium? After attacking and beating up her son in a frenzied rage at mild brattiness, she becomes convinced of the former case, and begins to contemplate self-annihilation.
Some have favourably compared this with Duel; I can't support that, for it isn't as compulsively paced and simply thrilling. Something Evil betrays some of the limitations of both a TV production of the period and Spielberg’s own developing craft: the pace is uneven and draggy in points, whilst the lack of special effects and polish to the production, as well as the general toothlessness of the TV-friendly horror, hampers much of the impact (today Duel has the advantage of usually being seen in its extended, punchier, more rounded theatrical cut). Spielberg’s direction here, as in Duel, certainly looks and feels cinematic, not particularly hampered by a more visually and conceptually limited format and quietly ebullient in technique: certainly, unlike a lot of TV-trained talent who had arrived prior to him in American movies, even John Frankenheimer and Arthur Penn in their early film work, Spielberg arrived fully formed as a cinematic talent. And yet Spielberg’s sense of shot-for-shot fastidiousness and compressed, motivated narrative flow perhaps owes more to his TV training than his latter-day image as the doyen of big Hollywood filmmaking might indicate, and Something Evil offers the chance to see him working through some hesitations as well as showing off talent. Something Evil is also a suitably ambitious and thematically apt follow-up to Duel, one that coherently presents the inverse of the predecessor’s narrative: where there the suburban man, playing the role of hunter-gatherer, was in need of a shock lesson in real hunting, here the central figure is the young mother whose maternal strength has calcified into phobic alienation and uncertainty. Dennis is sterling, offering a measured, slow-burn edition of her patented crumbling neurotics, whilst McGavin gears up for his ride as Carl Kolchak.
In the film’s eeriest sequence, Paul is shown test reels from the ad shoot in which a pair of glowing, demonic eyes are glimpsed in the window behind the model: it’s a great touch, and anticipates recent horror films like Paranormal Activity and Lake Mungo in grasping the evocative power of accidental evidence of the uncanny captured through recording mediums. But one can imagine the more practiced Spielberg presenting this moment of revelation with far more precision of placing in the narrative, as well as staging, than here, where it’s almost lackadaisically introduced. Clouse’s script is laced with echoes of the theme of women being driven crazy for sinister ends, so popular in the ’40 (Gaslight, Dark Waters, My Name is Julia Ross) but the faith those films purposefully offered that the demons were figments of misogynist plotters has given way to free-floating malevolencies, one reason why Something Evil, like Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, conveys the bleakness of the fear of collapse into irreparable mental illness.
There’s also a dash of subtle humour to proceedings, as the Wordens find themselves all the more enthusiastically accepted by the local community after the deaths of their two advertising friends, as it gives everyone something to talk about. With its emphasis on supernatural entities tormenting average people and exposing rifts in the parent-child relationship, the following year’s The Exorcist is clearly anticipated, and indeed Something Evil was produced as a quickie cash-in on the novel's success, able to beat the film version into release. bBut Spielberg and Clouse reject the traditionalist hierarchism inherent William Peter Blatty’s tale argued as the cure for modern ills. This diary of a mad housewife comes down on the side not just of the mad housewife, but also finally recognises her as a figure of great but misdirected spiritual power, who fights back effectively by embracing and mastering the subversive power of the folk magic emblems that others have taken as symbols of her lunacy.
Spielberg inverts the sense of threat posed by the forces within the house so that forces outside, like Ernest, seem to be threatening Marjorie within, whilst a jump-cut from the demon’s eyes as revealed in the ad footage to Marjorie’s viewpoint looking out from the same position within her house entwines her perspective with the demon’s, confirming her fear of the outside is itself a contrivance of the evil presence. Spielberg looks forward to the same motif of terrifying forces surrounding and invading a family home found in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). The theme of troubled maternal affection evoked in both of those films, as well as in The Sugarland Express (1974), is present and also closely matched with this motif of external threat. Marjorie negotiates her house and grounds as a trap where her emotions seem to become uncontrolled and her senses are twisted in corrosive self-doubt: she seeks defend the boundaries of her world but the evil is within those borders.
Spielberg worked here for the first time with cinematographer Bill Butler, and the strength of their technical partnership in dealing with the boxy TV format is readily apparent, even as some of young Steven’s visual tricks pass sophomoric. Bold multi-plane framings and forced perspective shots signal Spielberg’s dynamic emerging, particularly in a shot of Stevie being molested by the demon in his sleep, face thrust close to the camera in an intense wince as if he’s dreaming of invisible claws hooking his flesh, a moment that conveys a disturbing sense of invasion and torment and queasily invoking the anxiety over child abuse underlying the narrative. The film builds to a silly scare moment when Marjorie finds the jar of satanic goo from the barn suddenly residing in her kitchen cabinet, but the cheesiness of this doesn't dispel the bravura build-up to it: the early, carefully intimate mobile camerawork has given way to forcibly disorientating movement, as the lens remains fixed on Dennis’ face as she moves with increasing franticness around the kitchen, vision matching her churning distress.
Point-of-view shots recur too, a bit goofily when Spielberg has the camera adopt Marjorie’s perspective as she searches in the dark with a torch, mounting the torch on the camera. Far more effective are the crashing alternations of Dennis and Whittaker’s faces during Marjorie’s crazed chastisement of Stevie, filmed in whirling hand-held shots, physically conveying the hysteria and disorientation but also suggesting the link between frenzied mother and provoking son. A sequence where the demonic presence torments Harry conveys threat with lunging overhead crane shots looks forward most obviously to the more literal predatory eye of Jaws. In spite of the lumpy pacing, moreover, Spielberg builds sufficient tension and ambiguity that when the final twist in style and plot arrives, the film erupts with new force and virtuosity: Corey hauls Dennis back from the edge in a moment that successfully conveys rescue that feels like attack. Marjorie, so self-mortifying in the face of her own presumed threat, proves renascent and ferocious when it comes to defending her own in a battle for her children, although she realises she’s endangered them precisely through her attempts to save them from herself, and the narrative reverses from parental neurosis to problem child angst as mother has to wrestle her possessed son into the safety zone she’s created, and the family, the first of many in Spielberg’s oeuvre, reforms in the eye of threat, something Duel’s couldn’t manage. But much in the same way he was left perched on the edge, transfigured by his elemental battle, so too young son gazes back on the house he’s leaving with the suggestion of hauntings to continue.