Friday, June 5, 2009

The Evil (1978) review


This is a section devoted to rare, and as yet to be released on legitimate DVD movies. Some films may have been released in some part of the world, or on some public domain label, or some may have simply never been released at all on the digital format. This section is designed to keep these films alive and to provide remembrance to those who may have seen them in some form or other, whether it be on the silver screen, video tape, or the small screen at home.

***NOTE: This film has since been made available from Shout! Factory on a double feature with TWICE DEAD; see bottom of review***


Richard Crenna (C.J.), Joanna Pettet (Dr. Caroline Arnold), Andrew Prine (Raymond), Victor Buono (The Devil)

Directed by Gus Trikonis

Caroline reading from a marker outside the mansion: "Disturb not he who is here held in chains."

C.J. & Caroline read from Vargas' diary: "Whoever strong and noble soul would set the holy seal upon the gate to guard the place in life and death till time is no more that no man will set loose the Beast again."

The Devil: "I feed on terror, Mr. Arnold. Your puny fears give birth to it and you suckle it like swine till it overcomes you. This can last an eternity. It drains nothing from me, causes me no discomfort. I expend nothing to hold you here and place you in pain far greater than anything you can imagine possible."

C.J., a psychologist and his wife, Dr. Caroline Arnold, purchase an old mansion that was built by the hermetic Emilio Vargas. Purchasing the spooky home rather cheaply, they plan to turn it into a ward for psychiatric patients. A number of C.J.'s colleagues and former interns help in the restoration of the ominous manor. Inspecting the basement, C.J. finds a peculiar metal cross locking a huge cellar door buried beneath some dirt. He removes the sign not knowing he has unleashed a demonic force that prevents anyone from leaving the house. With the group being slowly killed off by the unseen fiendish force, it is discovered that years earlier a battle between good and evil took place within the walls of the creepy lodge.

It turns out that the former owner, Emilio Vargas fought against the Devil himself and cast him into the bowels of the cellar imprisoned and held by the sign of the cross. Now the Devil has been unleashed and those still alive must send the evil back to where it came from.

Gus Trikonis, a veteran of numerous tv programs and a handful of exploitation movies tries his hand at a straight horror movie and is successful in creating one of the best haunted house pictures ever. It's a true shame this film isn't more well known, or spoken about much in horror circles. I first saw it on HBO around 1980 and it scared the hell out of me as a kid. There's very little gore in the film, but it makes up for this in the suspense department and a good script. The characters are nicely drawn and the performances are strong throughout. The two main characters are the most interesting.

Richard Crenna plays the psychologist, C.J. who happens to be an atheist. He has a scientific, or logical explanation for everything. This is put to the test once he and his group have been trapped within the hell house. It's not until near the end that C.J. finds his faith once he comes face to face with The Evil during a scene wherein Caroline finds her husband and the others participating in some satanic necrophilic mass. Crenna will be most likely best remembered for his recurring role in the first three RAMBO films as John Rambo's superior. Crenna also starred in another horror film right after THE EVIL. It was a terrible little movie called DEATH SHIP (1980; also reviewed here).

His wife, Dr. Arnold, is religious, unlike anyone else in the house. Her faith also enables her to be the only one who sees a strange apparition passing through the rooms and hallways. The ghost is found to be the spirit of the former owner, Emilio Vargas and he has been attempting to warn the interlopers to get out. Of course, no one believes her that something evil is housed within the mansion and by the time it's realized that a terrible force has been unleashed, it's too late. The beautiful Joanna Pettet was a very good actress familiar to a lot of television watchers during the 70's and 80's. She easily takes center stage in THE EVIL nearly stealing the film away from the Devil himself.

This being a Devil movie, the laws of science and logic are miniscule compared with the power of faith in a spiritual entity. Joanna Pettet's character is the embodiment of that faith while the others are essentially doomed from the start because of their lack of faith. The only question is when and how these characters are going to die. The film works within the parameters of a slasher film only it substitutes the typical masked psycho for the invisible demonic force which, by films end, manifests itself as the Devil in the form of Oscar winning actor, Victor Buono. At one point, the dichotomy between faith and perfidy is summed up in a brief exchange between C.J. and his wife...

C.J.: "I found this in the basement but I don't remember bringing it up here...Where was it?"

Caroline: "It was there on the floor. Vargas showed me."

C.J.: "Vargas?"

Caroline:"Why am I the only one that sees him?"

C.J.: "You believe in God."

The book of revelations is also tied into the script detailed within the pages of Vargas' diary that the Devil is to be locked below for a thousand years and once that time is up, it is foretold that he will be released onto the world to plague mankind once more. Once the Devil has been set loose, the film kicks into high gear as the imprisoned victims-to-be try to escape and end up being executed with increasing rapidity. Many of the cast members die in a similar fashion whether it be by fire or electrocution. I would assume this correlates to the whole 'Hellfire & Brimstone' representation of Hell and the Devil's supposed affinity for conflagration.

Other people are killed by different means. One woman is killed by her own dog while another is sucked into the ground after believing he has escaped the manor. One character is pulled into a darkened hallway by an unseen demonic creature. The characters try to break the windows, or saw through the doors but find nothing works. This leads to the most gruesome moment in the film. Raymond (played by Andrew Prine) tries to saw through his hand with the dull bandsaw nearly severing his appendage in half.

Another scene that narrowly misses being tasteless is a scene where a pretty woman is nearly raped by the Devil. He tosses her around the room, slaps her face, slides her across the floor, strips her clothes away (save for her minor undergarments) and finally throws her atop a cot while an incessant cackling is heard in the background. Apparently Satan was just toying with her as the others enter the room to calm the screaming woman.

What's particularly fascinating about the script is that it bears some striking similarities to one of the best episodes from the original TWILIGHT ZONE; the season two episode, 'The Howling Man'. In it, a disoriented traveler lost in a wild storm is taken in at a hermitage run by a group of monks led by John Carradine. There, the weary traveler hears a man howling in the night. Asking the brothers who it is making all the noise, the monks state no man is held within the hermitage and that he is to stay in his room. Ignoring the monks request, he finds a distraught man locked away in a cell. The brothers tell him to stay away from the prisoner that it is the Devil himself. However, the man returns to the cell and has a conversation with the frightened captive. Noticing that the only thing locking him inside is a "staff of truth". The man utters "Is this all that's kept you inside?! Why couldn't you lift it yourself?!" The man removes the staff and finds out too late that he has just unleashed Satan upon the world.

During the ending of THE EVIL (1978), there's a roughly ten minute sequence where C.J. and Caroline fall into the cellar while trying to close the pit. Below, the entire area is covered in a mist and everything is solid white all around. Hearing a man cackling, he inspects further and finds a fat man dressed all in white sitting atop a throne. It is here that we see the Devil in a human guise as he orders C.J. to "Hand over that piece of holy excrement." Refusing, the Devil causes him some serious discomfort. With each cut, there is a noticeable change in appearance to the Devil ultimately turning into something resembling the classic appearance of what people perceive the Devil to look like. Curiously, this sequence also recalls another TWILIGHT ZONE episode this time from season one. 'A Nice Place To Visit' features a robber who is gunned down by the police. He later wakes up and finds out he has died and is informed by a jovial fat man dressed all in white that he can have anything and everything he wants he need only ask. The man, believing to be in Heaven, later finds out that he is actually in Hell as the white clothed fat man cackles behind him.

Apparently, this end sequence from THE EVIL bothers a lot of people. I never found it problematic and it has a certain eeriness all its own. Victor Buono is sinister in his brief role as Satan and it's a role he was born to play. He has the perfect look and articulation for such a part. It has been said that some prints of the film are shorn of this end sequence featuring Buono. I've never seen a version of the movie without it, but I would be interested in seeing one just to see how the ending is edited together sans this interesting denouement.

The music by Johnny Harris is quite good and wonderfully captures a mood of dread and foreboding doom. It does become a bit overly bombastic at times, but nonetheless, the score has a great energy that aids the film to a good degree. The sound design is also unusual. Some of the sound effects especially the unseen force as well as the cackling is certainly unnerving. However, a couple of sequences meant to convey an individual being chased by the invisible entity utilizes the Tie Fighter sound effects heard in the original STAR WARS! Producer Ed Carlin also produced another demonic horror picture; the obscure gore film from 1982, SUPERSTITION.

THE EVIL (1978) is an undeservedly obscure horror movie that is in desperate need of a DVD release. It's not one for the gore crowd, but those who can appreciate a tense, mildly violent, slightly bloody scare feature will find an enjoyable 85 minutes. One of the best low budget Devil movies to come in the wake of THE OMEN (1976), it contains a lot of elements to recommend it to curious, yet serious horror buffs on the look out for a nicely made horror movie that has seemingly slipped through the cracks for far too long.

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