‘The Evil’ (1978): Solid, fun genre offering despite silly ending

Apparently, my editor dodged rehab again (you ain’t gonna catch that jackrabbit in the scrub), so while he’s hiding out, he shot me an email, telling me Shout!’s Scream Factory label will release a Blu-ray double-header of Twice Dead and The Terror Within, which splits up two older Shout! DVD releases from their fondly-remembered Roger Corman’s Cult Classic Double Feature sets: The Evil / Twice Dead, and The Terror Within / Dead Space. Why don’t we look at all four flicks, in four separate reviews: 4x the love, 4x my standard fee…and 4 more times for Shout! Factory to figure out we mean business when it comes to them and us, you know…gettin’ together. Know what I mean?

By Paul Mavis

Let’s start with 1978’s possessed house spookums, The Evil, starring Richard Crenna, Joanna Pettet, Andrew Prine, Cassie Yates, George O’Hanlon Jr., Lynne Moody, Mary Louise Weller, George Viharo, Milton Selzer, and unfortunately, Victor Buono. Scream Factory released their Blu-ray version back in September of 2018.

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Psychologist C.J. Arnold (Richard Crenna) has found the perfect spot for his proposed drug rehab center: a massive mansion and hotel that has been vacant for over 100 years. To the realtor Mr. Dekker’s (Milton Selzer) credit, he doesn’t hide any facts about why the home has a reputation for bad juju. Built by “Old Man Vargas” (Galen Thompson) in “the Valley of the Devils,” as the local Indians called the area, the sulfur pits and steam pools there seemed to be an ideal spa setting…until the waters dried up the day the hotel was completed. As well, “Old Man Vargas” wasn’t all that old when he subsequently went into seclusion after the hotel failed—only 30-years-old…and already an old man overnight.

None of this mumbo-jumbo bothers secular cynic C.J.; however, his wife, Dr. Caroline Arnold (Joanna Pettet), is put off by the massive place right from the start—especially when she begins to see the ghostly apparition of Vargas beckoning her to follow him around the dump. Sold on the mansion/hotel, C.J. is going to need a lot of extra hands fixing up the dilapidated structure. Luckily, he has the willing help of his friends and ex-junkie employees. C.J.’s former pupil, Professor Raymond Guy (Andrew Prine), is also a psychologist; he’s coming up to the mansion to get away for the summer with his hot girlfriend/pupil, Laurie (Mary Louise Weller). Former drug addicts Felicia (Lynne Moody), Pete (George O’Hanlon, Jr.), Mary (Cassie Yates), and her German Shepard Kaiser (not an addict) are free, cheap, convenient labor for C.J., and Dwight (Robert Viharo, billed here as “George”) is the dick-swinging contractor who handles the heavy stuff. Not wasting any time, the ghost of Vargas makes contact with Caroline, while dog Kaiser takes off the first night to scratch at something in the basement of the mansion. A door of some kind. Set in the floor. With a cross jammed into the latch….

Released by Corman‘s New World Pictures; directed by Gus Trikonis (Moonshine County Express, Take This Job and Shove It, and tons of episodic TV and MTVs, like Elvis and the Beauty Queen), and written by Donald G. Thompson (also known as Galen Thompson: Superstition, Sidekicks), The Evil is a thoroughly familiar—yet solid—re-working of other, better “people trapped in a haunted house” movies like The Haunting, The Legend of Hell House, and certainly for this 1978 shocker, Dan Curtis’ 1976 mainstream success, Burnt Offerings. Keeping the chills old-fashioned and simple (strange sounds off-camera, lots of reaction shots from puzzled or frightened characters, shaky hand-held camerawork, and primitive but entirely credible in-camera special effects—no opticals), director Trikonis’ tight, clean, efficient, anonymous style works perfectly to help build the suspense of the piece.

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Admirably, Thompson’s script doesn’t screw around with superfluous scenes, either, sticking right with the task at hand—scaring the audience—and not insulting them by having characters who deliberately act stupid (the minute everyone realizes something drastically wrong is going on in the house, they want out. And they don’t stop trying to escape). Importantly, Thompson’s story is grounded in solid character motivation—the main conflict comes from C.J.’s secular, scientific stubbornness in the face of the reality of the supernatural events occurring in the house, something his religious wife immediately understands—with the arc of Crenna’s character development providing a bit more depth than one usually encounters in such low-budget horror outings.

Anyone soaked in today’s post-Saw and Hostel torture-porn antics will find the action and death scenes in The Evil positively quaint (or, sadly for them, boring), but that’s part of the charm of the movie. Since these scenes are played deadly-serious by the good cast, there’s a feeling of tradition and old-timey horror school conventionality that’s quite nostalgically attractive: The Evil is almost “comfy” in its now-squareness (something that I’d bet wasn’t its goal back in 1978).

And those kind of old thrills and chills still work…if you’re willing to see them in that context. Director Trikonis and screenwriter Thompson come up with some eerily-effective scenes (I particularly liked the sequence where Lynne Moody, attached to wires, is violently yanked back and forth as the demon viciously swats her across the floor), while the violent deaths are simply yet forcefully staged (Prine’s drowning in mud is well-staged, and Viharo’s electrocution couldn’t be more basic…and yet it works just fine).

Only at the very end of the movie does The Evil go disastrously, ludicrously, wrong. Right up front: in the commentary track that’s included on disc, the director, Gus Trikonis, disavows this final sequence and admits it doesn’t work (screenwriter Thompson, also on the commentary track, sort-of defends it). Trikonis maintains that this finale was foisted on him by the studio (including the casting of Victor Buono), and that he had no choice but to shoot it. Fair enough.

That being said…it’s terrible, ruining the entire feeling and atmosphere of the movie in a lame, pathetic attempt to be at the same time “cleverly” literal and conceptual. SPOILER ALERT Once Crenna and Pettet find the doorway to Hell in the mansion’s basement, they drop down in and encounter…Victor Buono as Satan himself. Clad in a white 3-piece suit, in a small, blindingly all-white painted room, Buono insults Crenna with some weak jibes like “insignificant speck of vomit,” and “snivel, you little scum,” before he grows horns and gets stabbed with a cross by Pettet. Jesus what a miscalculation.

It’s bad enough that this poorly-written high-school playette about Crenna’s lack of faith utterly negates the heavy, dark, serious feel so carefully established for The Evil (the screenwriter states he wanted his version of Hell to be “different,” but it’s so benign and non-threatening-looking in its sterile whiteness, the worst that you think might happen in that room is a proctology exam). But jolly, chortling Victor Buono??? With horns???

I can’t think of more inappropriate casting for the Dark One (with the possible exception of Avery Schreiber), and sadly, I can’t think of any valid reason why the moviemakers and the studio thought they could pull this seriously misguided, silly sequence off (according to some, this scene is sometimes cut out of television prints…good). Enough of The Evil‘s previous 80 minutes are solid enough for the viewer to swallow hard and forget this addle-patted foray into Brechtian whimsy (as filtered through every goofy TV sitcom dream sequence ever made), but it’s a shame they so thoroughly botched a credible, satisfying ending for this more-than decent genre outing.

A quick note about the extras on this Shout! DVD release (which hopefully were ported over to the Blu-ray…which we know you going to send to us, Shout!…right?) You can view both movies on the disc with “The Roger Corman Experience,” which threads up the two movies with trailers, coming attraction bumpers and a concession stand reel inbetween the two (as God intended: at the drive-in). Or…you can watch it all separately. Trailers for Kingdom of the Spiders, Death Race 2000, The Terror Within, and Not Of This Earth, with Traci Lords (oh god yes!) are included.

Additional bonuses for The Evil include a commentary track with the director, Gus Trikonis; the screenwriter Donald Thompson; and the director of photography, Mario Di Leo (moderated by Walter Olsen, who adds…very little). It’s a fun commentary, with Trikonis getting the biggest (unintentional) laughs whenever someone asks him, “What ever happened to that actor?” Answer: a flat “I don’t know.” There’s a fascinating discussion of how they achieved the ghost effect in-camera, but Di Leo gets it wrong when he says The Evil is the first movie of its kind to do this (huh?). Thompson also sets the record straight on whether or not a demon was actually shot for the movie (it was…but it was cut), and whether or not The Evil‘s original story should be credited to David Sheldon (it shouldn’t).

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

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