As part of our coverage of the 18th annual Fantastic Fest, Rob Hunter reviews the new apocalyptic horror film from the director of 2017’s ‘Terrified.’ Follow along with more coverage in our Fantastic Fest archives.
Dread is a highly effective tool for filmmakers hoping to craft memorable horror films, but too few take advantage of its power. The ominous feeling that something terrible is heading your way, the decreasing belief that you can do a damn thing to stop it — this is horror that’s both visceral and emotional. Some fantastic recent examples include Prince of Darkness (1987), The Invitation (2015), and The Lodge (2019), and now one more can be added to the list with Demiàn Rugna‘s pitch perfect slice of apocalyptic horror, When Evil Lurks.
“God is dead, and the time of churches ended quickly.”
Pedro (Ezequiel Rodríguez) and his brother Jaime (Demián Salomon) are awoken late at night by the sound of gunshots, and when they investigate in the morning they find a dismembered and partially eaten body. The discovery leads them to possessed man nearby, a “rotten” who needs to be disposed of before he can birth an evil being into the world. Seems simple enough, but in addition to the body weighing four-hundred pounds and dripping in mucous, drool, and other bodily fluids, the evil’s desire to find a physical form might just outweigh the brothers’ ability to stop it.
When Evil Lurks is a dread-filled nightmare that drops viewers into an already brewing hellscape where evil is a known entity. Comparisons to Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (1980) and The Beyond (1981) are on point as the film is heavy with deadly serious nonsense, gory demises, and an omnipresent sense of dread suggesting escape is unlikely, but unlike the Italian master’s intentionally loose movies, this one feels as there’s an entire mythology sitting just outside the frame. We’re teased bits and pieces of the world’s reluctant and recent acceptance of evil, and it’s more than enough to identify the stakes and the toll on our protagonists. And that toll is fucking glorious. Well, depending on how you feel about children in horror movies…
In less talented or less committed hands, When Evil Lurks would feel stupid and silly, but Rugna captures the exact right tone for the horrors he’s delivering and the world he’s building. This reality is one where religion has already fallen away in the face of an evil that possesses loved ones, is immune to the various faiths, and lives and breathes by a few simple rules like the need to avoid animals, not take things that belonged to the possessed, and to not use electric lights — arbitrary but established, and all lead to the same conclusion. You can’t defeat this evil, you can only hope to avoid it.
Rugna focuses his film on a small handful of people living just outside a small town in Argentina, and while most of them have heard about these evils they’ve yet to experience it for themselves. It makes for an atypical ensemble as everyone has an idea of what they’re facing even if they’re not fully prepared for it, and the natural-sounding exchanges inform viewers along the way. It teases something of a Jaws riff as we discover that the mayor knew about the rotten but doesn’t want word to get out as it would mark the town as one lost to evil, and one respected member of the community suspects a conspiracy, that the rotten was placed as part of a land grab. These side beats add flavor and detail to the world, but they’re not the focus.
Escaping the evil becomes the only hope, but When Evil Lurks carries a pulsating and ominous “end of the world” vibe that grows and grows through both atmosphere and some unforgettable moments of violence, carnage, and soul-crushing devastation. Evil spreads as some fall prey to control and suggestion and others see all hope fall away before their eyes. A couple with a single unruly sheep. A family with a loving dog that’s great with kids. A mother who wants only to get her children back. A school where only the children have survived. Any horror film would be lucky to snag even one of the many scenes that Rugna packs into this masterpiece of tone and terror, and here they just keep coming.
When Evil Lurks takes no prisoners as a horror film where innocence is either non-existent or ineffective against the dark, and Pablo Fuu‘s score helps drive the energy and the horror towards that abyss. Possession films tend to feel all too familiar with religious practitioners, exorcisms, and their iconography, but Rugna wisely sidesteps all of it in favor of exploring the horrors that follow a world in decline and under siege. Have fun!