Something Evil (1972)


Directed by Steven Spielberg

Something Evil follows a young family led by husband and wife, Paul and Marjorie.  When we meet them they are vacationing in the countryside, right next to a farmhouse for some reason.  Marjorie paints the house while their son Stevie plays nearby, and everything is picture perfect.  The farmhouse is for sale, and Marjorie says they should buy the place.  Despite some protests from Paul, they ultimately purchase the house and move in.

The family is new to this pastoral landscape, and Marjorie doesn’t take a liking to the place as much as she thought she would.  They have a neighbor who kills his chickens in a way that displeases her, so she often calls Paul at his marketing job in New York City, complaining about goings on at the farm.

This sets up a stark contrast between the world they come from and the world they have moved to.  They are a city couple, so their difficulty adapting to the farm isn’t much of a surprise, and it allows Paul to shake off his wife’s worries as nothing more getting used to the place.  The real problem, though, is that the house is possessed by the devil.

One night Marjorie hears the cries of their daughter (who is hardly in the film), and she follows the chilling baby howls to the barn where it’s just a rat.  Soon after Paul’s company shoots a commercial at the house, and after the wrap party that night, two people are killed as they drive home.

A couple days later they have a welcome party of some kind with the other neighbors, and, as you know, tradition says you wait until someone has died on your property before holding the welcome party.  At this event, Marjorie meets Ernest and his uncle, Harry.  Ernest seems to know that there is something off with this house, and he later tells her, somewhat casually, that the previous owner died under suspicious circumstances.  He also informs her that the previous owner began going crazy before his death.

In another scene, Marjorie follows the familiar cries of a baby into the barn, and she sees some sort of jar that is glowing red.  This infects her in some way, and she roughs up her son.  Believing herself to have been possessed by the devil, she is now on high alert.

In the film’s climactic scene, she has learned that Harry, who provided a stabilizing force, was attacked by a spirit.  She then runs up to the barn, apparently planning to kill herself, because she thinks she’s possessed by the devil and a danger to her children.  A different neighbor saves her, and he matter of factly informs her that her son is possessed by the devil, not her.  They run inside, and Paul arrives at the same time.  Then she pulls her son back from the devil by telling him how much he loves her, the son, not the devil.

This film was made for tv, like Steven Spielberg’s previous film, Duel (1971).  It has a brief runtime of only 73 minutes, and the whole thing feels like a long episode of some tv show.

I’ll admit that it is a little creepy despite not being an outright scary horror film, at least by modern day standards.  The baby’s cries that Marjorie keeps hearing are very eerie and tough to listen to.  Also, the fact that Marjorie doesn’t think she can trust herself is also very frightening, but it is something that has been done many times since this came out (and possibly before as well).  So that might’ve been a more effective story device in 1972 than in 2016.

Many horror films today will begin with a scene or sequence that sets the tone for the film.  In It Follows (2015) for example, the story begins with an unnamed character running desperately around a street while the camera calmly pans around to follow her from a locked position.  We know something is following her, but we can’t see what it is.  Then we get a shot of her on a beach at night, dead, her leg gruesomely contorted in an unnatural position.  So the beginning of the movie tells you what’s going to happen, at least tonally.

Here we start with an extremely innocent, well-lit pastoral landscape.  It doesn’t feel like a horror movie, but that’s because we start with the ideal in order to show what’s at stake or what can be lost.

As a whole, this film looks like a normal film.  There aren’t too many unorthodox shots, though there are some neat camera tricks to drum up the suspense and portray the invisible spirits that attack the characters.

In the final act, though, Spielberg begins to shoot with a very wide angle lens, distorting the edge of the frame.  This allows the camera to move much more and to not lose sight of the action.  We see Marjorie stumble through the hallway and the camera tracks with her from in front, like she’s trying to escape not just her house but from the movie screen itself.  Not long after, Paul arrives in a cab, and the camera is seated next to him, panning left and right as Marjorie and the neighbor hurry from the barn to the house, with Paul quick to follow.  It helps put us in the action in a way the rest of the film didn’t or couldn’t.  Now that we’re caught up, and we know what’s going on, we’re a part of the story.

The story is also a little odd because there aren’t many doubts about whether the devil is haunting the place.  Some people think it’s obvious that the devil is present, and the ones who don’t believe, quickly do after a moment of explanation.  The older neighbor, Harry, tells the married couple, “you believe in God, right?” before explaining that if there is a god, there is also a devil.

Early in the film, before anything is amiss, we see Marjorie making small round medallions that she puts around the house.  Apparently these offer protection from the devil, and she was already making them, so that’s either a stroke of good fortune or there was already this part of her that has honed in on spirituality or paranoia or some combination.

This entire film takes the belief in God as a certainty.  Early on there is a dividing line drawn between the married couple from the city and the country folk.  I expected there to be a widening hap between them as the story went on, but everyone was kind of nice to them, accepting them with open arms.  Then when Harry asked if they believed in God, they said of course.  Everyone believes in God, and this isn’t an overtly religious film.  It just takes advantage of the myths inherent in Christianity to justify a horror movie premise.  So many they all believe in God because this was 1972 and more people believed in a God than they do today.  It helped unify the characters.

That message was kind of nice, though.  Even if it was a little simplistic, it’s nice to see a neighbor say, “I’m a phone call away,” after describing how powerful of an emotion love is.  The end of the film was a little hurried and unexciting for all the relative buildup, and it certainly wasn’t as eerie or terrifying as a few earlier scenes in the film.  Maybe all horror films have to deal with that kind of letdown at the end of the film.

Not every horror film has a crappy ending or anything like that, but part of what makes a horror movie good is the mystery.  We’re not supposed to know completely what’s going on, but in the end, for the characters to tackle the antagonistic force, they have to know the mystery.  It always seems to work that way, and that forces the movie to empty it’s bag of tricks.  I also am not well-versed on a lot of horror films, so I may be completely off base, but it seems to be common in a certain number of films.

Act 2 or something will end with the main character knowing everything they need to know about what’s going on, so the final challenge is a physical one rather than anything cerebral.  Now that I think about it, a lot of films are like this.  Think of a murder mystery where the killer is still loose.  They realize what’s happening and who’s going to be targeted next, so the final act is all about stopping the bad guy’s plan, and we know exactly what the bad guy is going to do (unless there’s some twist).



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