The Evil (1978) Review
Arriving in theatres the year before The Amityville Horror, but a year after the book, The Evil was a drive in and video store staple back in the day, but seems to have been forgotten over the years. And when it is mentioned, it’s usually due to Victor Buono’s (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Beneath the Planet of the Apes) portrayal of Satan, which the director claims he was forced to shoot against his will, and proved so polarizing it was allegedly edited out of some prints.
That’s a shame because not only is The Evil a much better film and didn’t spawn a horde of horrendous cash ins, it’s also a good example of the films that filled the space between the grindhouse films and the major studio offerings.
Sam (Ed Bakey, Dead and Buried, Zapped!), the kind of handyman whose two most treasured items are his toolbox and his flask, turns up to get the old Vargas Estate ready for its new owners. He’s disturbed by strange sounds coming from somewhere in the supposedly empty building. Tracking them down to the furnace, he’s puzzled to find it empty. Until it suddenly comes to life and sets him on fire.
The reason Sam was there in the first place, psychologist C. J. Arnold (Richard Crenna, First Blood, Leviathan) and his wife Caroline (Joanna Pettet, Casino Royale, Welcome to Arrow Beach) are on their way to the house while this is happening. The realtor (Milton Selzer, Get Smart, Sid and Nancy) tells them they could have had the place sooner if their foundation was associated with a church, which allows CJ a chance to express his distaste for religion.
CJ intended to turn the place into a rehab for drug addicts, and he’s undeterred by the missing handyman or Caroline almost instantly seeing ghosts and moving statues. He calls in his former student Professor Raymond Guy (Andrew Prine, Amityville II: The Possession, Grizzly), and the student he’s sleeping with, Laurie (Mary Louise Weller, Bloodtide, Forced Vengeance).
He also recruits his former patients Felicia (Lynne Moody, Scream Blacula Scream, Escape to Witch Mountain), Pete (George O’Hanlon Jr., Halloween, Battleship), Mary (Cassie Yates, The Other Side of the Wind, The Osterman Weekend), who recruits her German Shepard Kaiser. And since Sam still hasn’t turned up, his own handyman, Dwight (Robert Viharo, Bare Knuckles, Happy Birthday, Gemini).
Director Gus Trikonis (Dance of the Dwarfs, Moonshine County Express) co-wrote The Evil with David Sheldon (Lovely But Deadly, Grizzly II: Revenge) and Galen Thompson. Thompson, who also plays the ghost of the house’s previous owner, would go on to write another superior haunted house flick, the delightfully gory Superstition, before ending his career working on several of Chuck Norris’s later films such as Hitman and Forest Warrior. They do a nice job of scattering strange occurrences through the first act before CJ finds a trap door secured by a cross in the cellar. Of course, he has to remove the cross, allowing the door to open and all hell to break loose.
While it’s never really gory beyond a painful looking scene with a circular saw, The Evil does manage to rack up several nasty deaths once the house has everyone locked in. An escape attempt ends with another death by fire, there’s also a pair of electrocutions, Kaiser mauls another victim, they even manage to work quicksand into the mix. At one point, it even looked like it was going to predate The Entity’s demon rape scenes, but in an unexplained show of restraint it leaves the victim in her underwear and unmolested.
The cast, which consists mostly of very familiar character and occasionally lead performers, are all game and give it their all even when it’s obvious they’re throwing themselves around to simulate the house shaking. Crenna is particularly good as the man of science who’s forced to admit the existence of God and Satan.
Which brings us to the scenes I alluded to at the beginning of the review, so let me drop a SPOILER WARNING before I go any further. After everyone but CJ and Caroline are killed off, they try to close the door in the basement. Instead, they end up in the pit and CJ wanders into a sterile white chamber where the source of the evil, Satan in the form of a chubby man, sits on a white throne laughing and telling him this was all his fault. And that he needs to destroy that cross once and for all, which CJ refuses to do.
While the idea of a Hell that looks like Heaven might have sounded good on paper, on the screen it looks ridiculous. It doesn’t look or feel threatening, and Victor Buono is anything but scary. Even cinematographer Mario DiLeo (Breaker! Breaker!, The Final Alliance) who delivers plenty of atmospheric shots during the rest of the film can’t make this scary.
It’s too bad The Evil had to go out on a note like that because up until then it was an enjoyable and well-made slice of supernatural fun that has held up well over the years. The ending doesn’t ruin it, and it’s still worth checking out, but they do take the edge off of it and if they were cut from some prints I can understand why.
Originally released by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, The Evil is available on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory as well as on various Digital Platforms.