A young family duels with the devil in a new TV movie from the devilishly young director of ‘Duel’!
Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a column where I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the 70s. This week’s entry comes from arguably the most well-known film director in the world although he was nowhere near that designation back in 1972. Steven Spielberg struck ratings gold with his 1971 Movie of the Week, Duel, and the film is still regarded today as one of the best TV movies ever made. It certainly jump-started his career which until that point consisted of helming TV shows like Columbo and Night Gallery. Most people would be forgiven for thinking he moved straight from Duel to Jaws while others know that his big screen debut, The Sugarland Express, predates the shark movie by a year. But relatively few seem to realize he made a second TV movie in the early ’70s — about an innocent family and a house with demonic intentions — because for some reason it’s never before been officially released on any home video format.
When: January 21st, 1972
Paul and Marjorie Worden (Darren McGavin and Sandy Dennis) move out of New York City with their two kids in tow and buy a home in the countryside. She keeps occupied with arts and crafts while he commutes back and forth to the city for his advertising job, but it’s not long before she begins to suspect something is amiss. The neighbor spreading chicken blood around their property is bad enough, but when a child’s wailing wakes her at night she’s understandably unsettled to discover that the sounds aren’t coming from her own kids. The childish crying is coming from the barn.
Something Evil is an atmospheric tale – an impressive enough feat on a TV movie budget – that stands tall even if it doesn’t stand out.
The Wordens make new friends in the rural community including a spry widower (Ralph Bellamy) and his nephew (John Rubinstein), but their housewarming party is marred by the death of two of Paul’s co-workers who crash under mysterious circumstances on the drive home. Glowing red eyes in a window, more ghostly baby cries, and the discovery of goo-filled jars in a shed add to the building sense of menace, but by the time Marjorie convinces Paul they need to leave it may be too late. And then their red-headed son (Johnny Whitaker) starts to levitate.
The film isn’t immediately identifiable as the work of Spielberg, but there are plenty of little touches that would go on to make appearances in his later work. There’s the much-discussed “Spielberg face” of course including slow zooms in to close-ups, but we also get a pre-echo of Jaws in the party scene as he moves the camera through the crowd just long enough to pick snippets of conversations amid the multiple people conversing at normal volume over each other. There are also a few images you could argue were lifted wholesale for The Amityville Horror later in the decade.
Being a TV movie the film is mostly devoid of real special effects instead leaving the creation of atmosphere and general spookiness to Spielberg’s direction, and he mostly succeeds. His visuals, accompanied by some strong sound design, elevate the unease in a handful of sequences including the crying baby and a sequence that sees Marjorie caught amid thorny branches as the wind howls around her. The film’s creepiest scene though is one ultimately far removed from the main narrative. The widower’s nephew pays an unexpected visit as Marjorie chats on the phone, and we watch him in the background as he attempts to remove the door chain and even tries to reach her toddler daughter through the doggie door. It’s unclear if it’s meant to be threatening, but it most definitely feels like it. An abandoned plot strand perhaps?
The script by Robert Clouse (the director of Gymkata!) bounces around some hokey ideas and fails to commit to most of them. The nephew’s oddly malicious behavior may or may not be an incomplete subplot, but there are definite threads left dangling in regard to whatever it is menacing the Wordens. Do the jars contain souls? Baby jelly? Peach preserves? It’s unclear, and while the finale is effective enough on a visceral level it too leaves more questions than answers. Where the script succeeds most though is in creating a real feel to the characters and their interactions. Even supporting characters are given personality and personable dialogue, and when combined with solid performances helps to elevate the film above its obvious limitations.
Something Evil is lesser Spielberg compounded by his inexperience at the time and the restraints of TV, but it’s still a more enjoyable watch than the bookend scenes of Saving Private Ryan or the entirety of Always. Yeah, I said it. As mentioned at the top of the page, the film has never received an official home video release, but bootleg DVDs and a German import are available.
[Note: I’ve re-purposed my review from 2014 for this week’s entry.]
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