Saturday, January 09, 2010
SOMETHING EVIL Film Review
By Brian Holcomb
"Spielberg" is about as definitive a brand as there is in modern cinema. Both in content and cinematic style, the director has exhibited an effortless consistency throughout his large body of work. Perhaps only Walt Disney and Alfred Hitchcock have ever come near to this filmmaker's personal connection to mass audiences and immediate brand name recognition. Spielberg's position today as a kind of three headed dragon-technically proficient filmmaker, entrepreneur/businessman, and sometime studio executive- is secure. But his role as personal artist and "auteur", remains controversial. His tremendous box office success is partly responsible for this since elitist folklore suggests that high profit must equal low art. But it's also due to a certain shift in the contemporary definition of "auteur". What was once a theory that proposed that a director could express himself personally through random studio assignments came to be a label for the singular writer-director-genius and the cult of personality. Spielberg is clearly the last auteur standing from the original "Hitchcock-o-Hawksians" that championed everyone from Anthony Mann to Edgar G Ulmer. Because of this, his days as a television director for hire are very informative, as they illustrate the classic conflict between Hollywood's industrial production methods, committed to generating popular genre material for mass consumption, and the expressions of auteurism between the frames.
So much of Spielberg's early career as a contract director at Universal is mired by legend(much of that trumped up by the director himself) and by the very unavailability of the films themselves. Duel is a known quantity, but his follow-up to that film, Something Evil remains largely unseen. This is a great shame as it's a fascinating film both in terms of Spielberg's own development as a filmmaker and for how it anticipates many of the motifs of later films in the horror genre.
The film originally aired on the CBS network on January 21, 1972. In terms of it's status as a genre product, the film was produced to fill a slot in the CBS schedule and to capture an audience who, by 1972, had become gripped by tales of the occult. The early '70s was a fertile period for the TV movie, particularly of the suspense, horror and mystery genres and Something Evil was typical of the style, quite similar on paper to Crowhaven Farm(1970) for example. The story by Robert Clouse, who would later become best known as a specialist in martial arts films such as Enter the Dragon(1973) and Black Belt Jones(1974), is quite derivative and formulaic. Clouse's final teleplay is better than the story, however, but it's Spielberg's direction that really holds it together.
Set in the rural farmlands of Bucks County, Pennsylvania with its old country houses and barns adorned with Hex symbols, Something Evil tells the story of artist Marjorie Worden(Sandy Dennis) who moves into a new home with her Advertising Exec husband Paul(Darren McGavin), and their children Stevie(Johnny Whitaker) and Laurie (Debbie and Sandy Lempert). Tired of life in the hustle bustle of the big city, the open spaces of the country seem to be the perfect place to settle down and raise their family. Marjorie soon begins to experience strange events and comes to believe that their home and the land around it is the devil's playground. Being left alone with the children day in and day out, Marjorie slowly begins to lose her sanity. It appears that a demon may be trying to possess her. The isolation and atmosphere around the house take their toll on her and soon she fears what she might do to her children, that her will is not her own. Paul becomes concerned as she seems to be abusing the children. A friendly neighbor, Harry Lincoln (Ralph Bellamy), tries to help her confront the evil and save her family from spiritual corruption.
The horror genre is about as cannibalistic as they come, so there's less mileage to be gained from discussing the derivative elements than there is in examing how those elements are finally used. Granted, the story is a tossed salad of early '70s occult motifs crafted under the notion that the viewing audience simply wants more of the same. The rural setting is probably lifted from Thomas Tryon's "The Other" while the demonic possession theme is clearly influenced by "Rosemary's Baby", "The Mephisto Waltz" and, of course, William Peter Blatty's novel "The Exorcist". But it's important to remember that this was 1972, and though far from perfect, Clouse's script is a strong example of how something derivative can also push the genre into new directions. As a haunted house thriller of sorts, the script has less in common with earlier films such as The Uninvited or The Haunting than it does with films that followed it like Burnt Offerings, The Shining, The Amityville Horror, Mario Bava's Shock and Spielberg's own Poltergeist. In fact, much of Poltergeist's plot is so similar to Something Evil that it could be argued that the one was the pencil sketch for the other. Both films revolve around children who are threatened by supernatural forces in their homes and feature mothers who have to find the inner strength in order to face the evil and save them. But in this case, the sketch version is actually the more adult of the two. Where Poltergeist was designed to be a summer roller coaster ride of shocks and special effects, Something Evil deals very seriously with the subject of evil. Not only as an abstraction in terms of devils and demons, but of the kind of evil that exists in the everyday. Near the end of the film, Marjorie locks her children in their bedroom. Talking to them through the door, she confesses that she cannot trust herself anymore, that they need to stay away from her because she isn't sure she can keep from hurting them. As great as it is, this is the horror that Stanley Kubrick failed to achieve in The Shining. The horror of a loving parent who has become a monster and that of the parent themselves who are losing their grip on reality.
The most inspired element of Clouse's script is that it doesn't play the horror directly but rather takes a cue from Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw" and presents the story in a more ambiguous fashion. It's not quite as ambiguous as the James story but there is an attempt to suggest that much of the supernatural could be the imaginings of the lonely and isolated Marjorie Worden. This characterization of Marjorie can be traced back to Rosemary Woodhouse herself and the heroine of John Hancock's Lets Scare Jessica to Death released just a year earlier. All of these women are presented as feeling somewhat inadequate in the face of their responsibilities and fear that what they might be seeing is not so much supernatural as a telltale sign of paranoia and madness.
No matter its strengths, it's not the script that makes Something Evil memorable but rather the energy and vibrance of Spielberg's direction. In 1972, Spielberg was coming off of the success of Duel and the flurry of offers from other studios to direct a theatrical feature film. But he was still bound by the original 7 year contract he signed with Universal. Forced to sit around with nothing to do, he jumped at the chance to direct Something Evil if only as a technical exercise. As opposed to Duel , whose quality a humble Spielberg claims today to be about 99 per cent the work of writer Richard Matheson, Something Evil was random, episodic, and actionless with characters that weren't very well drawn. The same script handled by a more journeyman director would've resulted in nothing more than an extended Night Gallery episode with long stretches of padding. What Spielberg does to solve this problem is to expand on the ideas in the script, to try and find visual means to express the more abstract themes of the story. Unlike Duel or even Jaws, the story had no clear antagonist, no devil with horns who jumps out of the closet. His solutions were startlingly effective and very simple.
The first thing Spielberg does is to cast the film in a very Hitchcockian manner, using typecasting to fill in the sketchy characters. The three main players are cast not only for their skills as actors but for the on-screen history they carry with them. Sandy Dennis won an Academy Award in 1966 for her role in Mike Nichols' Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. By 1972, Dennis had been typecast as an eccentric and neurotic woman and this played right into the characterization of Marjorie Worden. Darren McGavin was already Carl Kolchak in The Night Stalker and brought with him a down to earth, rational and dependable quality that would carry him through countless roles in film and TV including the holiday classic A Christmas Story where he plays yet another All-American father. Ralph Bellamy, of course, brings a long history of character performances with him and allows for a sly wink to Polanski's film version of Rosemary's Baby in which he played the sinister Dr. Sapirstein. Spielberg gets strong performances out of them all, particularly Dennis who remains sympathetic even as she becomes violent and irrational.
Spielberg stages everything in an understated manner, allowing the supernatural to emerge from the natural, whether seen as a change in the intensity or direction of the wind, the swinging of a hanging barn light, or the subtle overexposure of the windows making the inside of the Worden home look like a hellish inferno . The effect created is that of the uncanny-not of shock horror, but of something not-quite-right. Most of the visual approach to the film is classic Spielberg. Scenes are played in long takes with careful blocking of actor and camera to create a kind of ballet between foreground and background action just as you would see in all of his subsequent films. The early Spielberg was highly influenced by the cinematic techniques of John Frankenheimer and the influence can be seen here, with a very energetic editing rhythm and the use of extreme telephoto and wide angle lenses for dramatic effect. Frankenheimer's 1966 film Seconds is very interesting in this regard as much of it looks like an early Spielberg textbook.The use of the long lens in the opening teaser coupled with slow motion creates a dream-like effect. Narratively, the former owner of the Worden home is seen running from the house to the second level of the barn and sensing a presence approaching him, falls to his death. Spielberg stages it in extreme slow motion and alternates between the compression of telephoto lenses and the extreme distortion of the wide angle lens to create a sense of mystery out of the ordinary.
But the most effective sequence in the film is the night walk taken by Marjorie when she is awakened by the sound of a child crying somewhere on the property. The choice of the child's cry is particularly specific, not the wailing that might be imagined but rather a plaintive series of cries and half-heard words from a child of about two or three years old who is being teased or abused. It always sounds farther away from Marjorie and causes her to look all about the house, checking the children's room and finding them sound asleep and finally outside to the old barn. Marjorie finds no child in here but rather a very startling and oddly disturbing abstraction. Opening an old woodburning stove, she discovers what appears to be a mason jar filled with some kind of pulsating and illuminated red goo. This one visual is one of Spielberg's most effective in the film as the object returns several times later in different places in the house, each time accompanied by the cries of the child as though the two things were somehow connected. The effect is quite surreal and unlike anything Spielberg has done in his later career. It's more like something you'd find in a David Lynch or Stanley Kubrick film.
Something Evil is an unfairly forgotten film in the career of Steven Spielberg and the early 70s horror genre.As an early work by an important filmmaker, there is an honest, unjaded enthusiasm in the film that comes from youth and which Spielberg cannot compete with today. His younger self, immensely talented and armed for the first time with the facilities of a major studio, is a torrential force behind the camera. As Orson Welles once noted, the movie studio was "the biggest electric train set any boy ever had." That is, any boy obsessed with movies and with the unlimited possibilities of filmmaking.
Something Evil(Jan. 21, 1972 on CBS)
Production Companies Belford Productions, CBS Productions. Director Steven Spielberg. Producer Alan Jay Factor. Teleplay by Robert Clouse. Photography Bill Butler. Music Wladimir Selinsky. Editor Allan Jacobs. Art Director Albert Heschong.
Cast Sandy Dennis (Marjorie Worden), Darren McGavin (Paul Worden), Jeff Corey (Gehrmann), Ralph Bellamy (Harry Lincoln), John Rubinstein (Ernest Lincoln), Johnny Whitaker (Stevie Worden), Laurie Hagan (Beth), David Knapp (John), Debbie and Sandy Lempert (Laurie Worden), Herb Armstrong (Schiller), Margaret Avery (Irene), Norman Bartold (Hackett), Sheila Bartold (Mrs. Hackett), Lois Battle (Mrs. Faraday), Bella Bruck (Mrs. Gehrmann), Lynn Cartwright (Secretary), John J. Fox (Soundman), Alan Frost, Carl Gottlieb, John Hudkins, Crane Jackson, Michael Macready, Paul Micale, Margaret Muse, John Nolan, Bruno VeSota, Connie Hunter Ragaway, Elizabeth Rogers.