Monday, May 01, 2017

The Evil Within: ESSENTIAL CULT MOVIE, and not just for Michael Berryman fans

I read a very interesting article the other day on Dangerous Minds about a film I had not previously heard or read anything about - but which I had seen on DVD at Walmart about a week ago. It's called The Evil Within - not to be confused with the video game of the same name. They proclaimed it to be a "minor masterpiece," and made it sound interesting indeed.

Today, we had to stop at Walmart again to pick up some meds, so - since it cost a mere $10 - I picked the film up. Ended up snagging it on DVD, as there were no Blu's, and took it home, where I just now finished watching it with Erika. We had previously, having seen a terrific late-career turn by Judy Davis recently in The Dressmaker, settled on Barton Fink for the movie of the evening, but watching the first five minutes of The Evil Within while Erika sorted some fabric in the bedroom convinced me that Barton Fink could wait: we HAD to see the film tonight (or, well, I had to, but she proved quite obliging, and I think she appreciated it, too). I'm very glad we saw it. It's going to become one of those movies that I won't shut up about, I suspect - it is REMARKABLE and ESSENTIAL, a film everyone who cares about cult movies or horror movies needs to see. "Minor masterpiece" may actually be underselling it. It's one of a kind, and probably always will be, the sort of film experience - a deranged vanity project-cum-labour of love - which can never, ever be repeated (especially given that its author is dead).

But I'll get back to the film itself in just a second.

First off, let me admit that it doesn't come in a very promising-looking package (more or less as you see above). I mean, on the one hand, it's absolutely terrific that Michael Berryman is on the box art of a DVD again. Other than The Hills Have Eyes and Cut and Run, I'm unaware of any other films, in cinema history, that have had him on the poster/ box;  so I'm glad that there's a new one. I guess I had presumed, after seeing just how little use Rob Zombie put him to in The Lords of Salem, that his career was very nearly at an end, that maybe he wasn't really able to act anymore, since Zombie didn't really require anything much of him besides waving a torch around (he's one of the puritans in the "witch hunt" sequence of the film - but blink and you'll miss him. Bad film, by the way). Based on that, I hadn't expected to see him in anything more than a cameo ever again; after all, he's 68 years old, and who knows what sort of health he might be in, given his physical irregularities.

But, happy for Berryman though I might have been, it's still not a very promising bit of box art, in terms of making you want to see the movie, because - standing there at Walmart, without having read word one about The Evil Within - my thought process went something like, "if all this film has going for it to market itself is capitalizing on the cult status of Michael Berryman, it must be pretty awful." I mean- sure, the marketing for The Hills Have Eyes capitalizes on Berryman's unusual appearance, too, and The Hills Have Eyes is great, but it's not like the people who were making the posters were trying to trade in people's familiarity with Berryman when they designed the poster, because he was pretty much unknown until that movie came out. No, they just wanted a memorable, menacing-looking face to stare out at the audience. Mission accomplished - it's a great poster, and a real coup for Berryman, especially when you take into account that he isn't even the main bad guy in the movie.

But - especially if his role in The Evil Within was just a cameo (which  - before I'd seen it, looking at the box in Walmart, seemed highly likely), by sticking Berryman on the cover of a DVD now... well, it just seemed a lazy move, a cash in that PROBABLY revealed nothing about the content of the film, which is how these things seem to usually work. It reminded me of those public domain DVDs you see of The Swap or Born to Lose that stick Robert DeNiro's mug on the cover (or did back when DeNiro was actually a hot property; you mostly seem to see him nowadays in direct-to-DVD stuff that you've never heard of until you find it in a thrift store). DeNiro is barely in either film, as I understand it, and fans of his will be sorely disappointed if they expect to see him; it's just a lazy bait and switch, a marketing gimmick, and I presumed this was the same thing. Some Z-grade low budget horror film was made, they gave Berryman a cameo, then stuck him on the box, because they knew that the rest of the film had NOTHING ELSE GOING FOR IT. How could it be anything but terrible? That's why I didn't pick the thing up last week.

My cynicism, while completely reasonable, all things considered, in fact says nothing about this gem of a film. Berryman is merely a cherry on top. While he has far more than a cameo - hell, he has a speaking part! - his being in the film isn't really essential to its merits, any more than the (small but notable) appearance by the late giant Matthew McGrory (also from a Rob Zombie film, as it happens). The film would stand on its own regardless of who they cast in Berryman's role.

That's not to exonerate the marketers; in fact, it kinda demonstrates just how bad a job they've done with this art. It also didn't seem particularly promising that the description of the film on the back of the case listed as one of his claims to fame - besides The Hills Have Eyes - Berryman's appearance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Yes, he's in that film, and yes, it's a film that has name-recognition, even among the unwashed, but as anyone who recalls him in the movie will know, he basically just lies in bed and drools the whole time; I don't think he even has a line of dialogue. It would be like a DVD release of a movie featuring Chris Desjardins listing Lethal Weapon as one of his accomplishments; sure, Chris D. is IN Lethal Weapon (and people know the name of that movie, more than they might know I Pass For Human or Border Radio), but he only appears onscreen for all of a second, and his only role is to be shot in the head and fall down.

Upshot is, I am very, very grateful to Dangerous Minds for doing the job the marketers failed so miserably to do, and pointing me squarely at this movie. I've always been impressed with their articles, but here, they've done the whole horror/ cult movie world a big favour by advocating for this very weird, very potent, very memorable movie.

But that's about all I'm going to say for now. This film is the most exciting cult movie  I've encountered since Donnie Darko or Beyond the Black Rainbow (or,  um, maybe Tommy Wiseau's The Room, though it is vastly more accomplished and competent). It has a few moments where its logic breaks down, where it doesn't quite work, attempting things - mostly in the last act - that it fails to explain or properly contextualize, which might provoke some film viewers to reject the movie, but in no way is this a bad film. Made - if I'm recalling the article correctly - as a labour of love over a fifteen year period by a now-deceased, drug-addicted heir to millions, Andrew Getty, it's a thoroughly unique mindfuck, involving a mentally challenged man who has disturbing nightmares, which start to bleed over into his life. It's a film where at various points "real world logic" breaks down to be replaced with a sort of surreal nightmare logic, where you're left wondering in the face of impossible (or improbable) turns of event what ACTUALLY happened, outside the delusions of the main character; you'll never know. It's maybe a flawed film - it appears Getty died before it was wholly finished - though it feels quite complete, and mostly works quite brilliantly, even if it requires a couple of moments of charity on the viewers' parts.

It's surely the most important cult movie in decades - Donnie Darko, Beyond the Black Rainbow, The Room and now The Evil Within. Plus it has a remarkable central performance, from Frederick Koehler, whose face is the one that should be staring out from the DVD box. He's great - playing a mentally challenged person so convincingly that you wonder if the actor is in fact mentally challenged, until you meet his alter ego.

My strong suspicion is, because the filmmaker is dead and the people marketing The Evil Within appear not to know what they're doing - having, with their lousy, lazy box art, alienated someone who absolutely LOVED the movie, when he saw it with no thanks to them - that The Evil Within is going to fall between the cracks (it's nice to see Blumhouse is spreading the word, too, though; there is only one review, as I write this, on Rotten Tomatoes. There isn't even a critic's blurb about the film on the box, though no doubt they could have gotten a good one if they weren't so bloody lazy). I feel like it almost by accident that I saw this movie. I had heard no buzz about it besides the Dangerous Minds article. I haven't heard about a midnight movie screening at the Rio. No one I know who knows the sort of movies I like has taken pains to recommend it to me. Word of mouth is what's going to bring this film to light, so it falls on those of us who care to a) see this film! and b) tell people about it!

You will want to. Just trust me, folks - if you like cult horror movies, if you like movies that take you inside a damaged subjectivity, if you want to have a memorable - admittedly somewhat lowbrow, but abundantly thought-provoking cinematic experience that you will want to see more than once, see The Evil Within as soon as possible (and note: probably better off if you DON'T see it on psychotropic drugs, eh? If you're inclined to do that thing, opt for Beyond the Black Rainbow instead, because there's one nightmare scene that will send you screaming out of the room if you catch this in an altered state). It's the most interesting film I've taken in since I saw The Lobster - but that movie didn't need my help to get the word out.

Thanks again, Dangerous Minds!


Allan MacInnis said...

Apologies to the Dina Meyer (the "other girl" in Starship Troopers) for not working in acknowledgment of her in the above. Not sure when her scenes were shot, but the fact that it took fifteen years for this film to be completed means that she looks pretty much as young, cute, perky and bright as she did in Starship Troopers, which is a neat trick. I'm sure she looks a bit older in real life!

Allan MacInnis said...

Oh, also, as that Australian article suggests, the credits are pretty interesting to look at. Rolling by at lightning pace, they reveal at one point, for instance, that 37 grips alone were employed in the making of the movie, listed all in a row; then - a bit later on - three more grips are added, bringing it up to forty (unless I missed some, which is entirely possible). I don't THINK I've seen a film that had more than one grip before; forty (or more) grips on one movie, even one made over fifteen years, is some sort of... accomplishment? Surely a world record, at least.

Finally, I didn't mention Jodorowsky anywhere in the above, so let me just add: Jodorowsky. Fans of Santa Sangre, in particular, will love this.

Allan MacInnis said...

By the by, the "real theme" of the film is, I think, caregiver burnout, which will make it a very interesting watch for anyone who has experienced that phenomenon.

Allan MacInnis said...

I often read articles on Blumhouse, so imagine my surprise when I read this spirited interpretation of The Lords of Salem, dismissed above. Kinda makes me want to see the film again!