This is the second and last Steven Spielberg TV movie. After this the Bearded One would turn his attention to theatrical feature films, and never look back.
Something Evil was produced for CBS and aired the 21st of January, 1972. It reportedly did very well. While it's inferior to Duel (1971) in many ways, it's still an intriguing film, partly because we can once again draw parallels to other films in Spielberg's career, but also because the story mirrors a certain Oscar winning occult movie. More on this later. First, let's see which ordinary life is all set to be messed up by Mr. Spielberg...
The Worden family is enjoying a quiet picnic in the countryside, somewhere in Pennsylvania. While her two kids are playing, their mother, Marjorie (Sandy Dennis), is sketching a old farm house. The place is for sale and Marjorie suddenly hits upon the idea that the family should buy the house, so they can get away from the noisy city. Her husband, Paul (Darren McGavin), reluctantly agrees, and before you can say "who died in the barn?" the family has moved in, despite warnings from the locals that there's something strange about the house. And sure enough trouble soon rears its ugly head.
One night Marjorie is woken by the sound of a child crying somewhere in the house, but she's unable to find the source of the sound. When she returns to the house she finds her son crying from a nightmare. The first of many.
A few days later, after a party at the Worden house, a couple on their way home is killed in a mysterious car accident. At the party the woman had displayed knowledge about the occult. More strange and increasingly disturbing events lead Marjorie to conclude that something evil is threatening the family. Her husband thinks she's crazy, but Marjorie turns to a local paranormal expert for assistance. But what if she's right? What if the Devil himself has laid claim to this family? Surely there's a price to pay for such interference...?
With a running-time of a mere 73 minutes Something Evil doesn't leave a whole lot of room for unnecessary detours, but since the story is simple, effective, and without any overcomplicated subplots the film never feels rushed.
The story begins with the death of an old farmer, the previous owner of the house, we gather. The man falls to his death after being chased by an unseen force. The scene is far from conclusive, so we don't know exactly what's going on, we just know something is wrong. That uneasy feeling is all Spielberg needs. He slowly and confidently builds up the tension in the family, and constantly plays with our natural mistrust of anything we can't see with our own two eyes. For a long time everything that happens in the film could be attributed to the mother's uneasy state of mind. Though, of course, we eventually learn what's really going on.
Even as the mystery unravels, Spielberg makes do with very simple means. Like when Marjorie, in a case of absurd family bonding, paints a giant pentagram on floor of the kids' bedroom. The scene is treated almost casually by Spielberg. It could have been a big MOMENT, with thunder and lightning strikes, or it could have been ruined by an imposing score, but the director keeps a tight grip on reality. His primary focus is the family, and as a result the interactions between the actors are totally believable. They completely sell the scene, despite the fact that we're dealing with the supernatural. This approach applies to the whole film, and leads to a powerful and frightening drama.
By the same token Something Evil isn't quite as visually aggressive or impressive as Duel - only during the demonic sequences later in the film, where Spielberg allows himself to go a little nuts! Still, I don't want to leave the impression that this is a boring or slow film, trust me when I say that there is a handful of moments here that are easily as scary as anything in The Exorcist (1973).
To quickly wrap up the other visual highlights, I want to call attention to a party scene early in the film that demonstrates Spielberg's fondness for creating chaotic montage-style scenes, which play out on multiple levels, both in terms of the images and the soundtrack. Spielberg experimented with variations of this in both his Columbo episode and in Duel, but now he seems to be on the verge of perfecting the technique. I also noticed that there's an awful lot of zooming here, which could perhaps be attributed to the compressed TV schedule, nevertheless it gives the film a slightly less cinematic feel compared to Duel, but perhaps that's because we're looking at the film with modern eyes. By the way, Something Evil was shot by future Jaws (1975) cinematographer Bill Butler.
I mentioned The Exorcist earlier and we might as well deal with the elephant in the room. Yes, there are a few similarities between Something Evil and The Exorcist. The novel behind the latter movie had been published in 1971, and the film version must have been in production when Something Evil was shooting. The story most likely was inspired by The Exorcist, but Spielberg certainly wasn't influenced by the film, since it had not yet been completed. I feel like we can also draw parallels to Rosemary's Baby (1968), in the way the mother becomes slowly obsessed with the demonic presence.
Another interesting comparison lies in Spielberg's own future. 10 years later he wrote and produced Poltergeist (1982), directed by Tobe Hooper (though, reportedly Spielberg more or less took over during post-production, but that's another story.) Clearly the film was an attempt to take the story of Something Evil and push it even further. The family dynamics are updated, and the supernatural aspect is given a boost.
Nothing scares me quite as much as stories about demons, possessions, the occult, or the Devil. I still can't watch The Exorcist without turning on all of the lights in my apartment, and to this day I still remember being scared out of my mind watching Poltergeist with my father, when I was way too young.
Something Evil can easily keep up with these two iconic films. That says it all. And for those still keeping track, Spielberg was only 26 when he directed this film.
The only really big problem with Something Evil is that it's bloody difficult to get a hold of. It has (at the time of writing) never been released to the home video market, so if you want to see it, you have to catch it on TV, or perhaps borrow somebody's old VHS recording. It's also possible to find this on the interwebs, with a little digging around, but the source will still just be some kind of TV recording. I really wish someone would pick this up and make a cool little special edition available. The film deserves it.
And with that, we leave the small screen and head for the big one. Not a moment too soon, I might add.
Next up: Where we're going, we definitely need roads.
Beard Factor: No beards again. What's going on?! I do not support this complete lack of facial hair.
Composition: 50% Poltergeist, 30% The Exorcist, 10% Rosemary's Baby, 10% zoom.
The Sound of Williams: Naught. Score is composed by Wladimir Selinsky.