The Evil Within
Frederick Koehler, Sean Patrick Flannery, Michael Berryman, Dian Meyer
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One of most singularly strange films to come along in a good while.
Auteur theory, still the dominant framework of film criticism today, basically states that although it takes many hands to build a house the director of a film is its author, being responsible for marshaling and guiding the efforts of so many into some kind of (hopefully) cohesive whole. The Evil Within, actually because of rather than in spite of its many… eccentricities… supports that thesis. That’s because it’s what you get when your auteur is a millionaire meth freak who spent over a decade obsessively tinkering with his cinematic manifesto.
The Evil Within is the first and, sadly, only feature film by Andrew Getty, of the rich AF Gettys, and he died as a result of his staggering affection for amphetamines before it was completed. With its editing finished by one of the producers, it’s now doing the cult and festival circuit, where it’s already garnering a reputation as one of most singularly strange films to come along in a good while. And rightly so.
Our focus here is the mentally disabled Dennis (Frederick Koehler), who is cared for by his elder brother, John (Sean Patrick Flannery). Dennis can be a bit of a handful, something that puts strain on John’s relationship with his girlfriend, Lydia (Dina Meyer). However, the tribulations of caring for an adult with learning difficulties (not the term most commonly applied to Dennis, by the way) will seem like a blissful dream once our disabled protagonist starts getting his kill on.
It all starts to go wrong when an entity in Dennis’s bedroom mirror starts talking to him, promising to gift him with intelligence and power in exchange for, not to put to fine a point on it, lives. Dennis begins by dispatching neighbourhood pets, then graduates to a child, and finally, at the mirror-thing’s goading, people closer to him. But what is the mirror entity’s endgame? And is this all actually happening, or is it all a product of Dennis’s imagination as he tries to process the stresses of his everyday life?
That sounds like a synopsis of a real film, but plot and execution are two different things. Comparisons have been made with The Room and they’re fair only up to a point; unlike Wiseau’s disasterpiece, there’s a level of professionalism on display in The Evil Within – evidence of Getty’s deep pockets being able to attract some decent technical talent, even if they didn’t stick around for long (stay for the credits to get an idea of the crew turnover).
However, what it does share with The Room is the inescapable sense that it’s been created by someone who doesn’t actually understand how people work. The cast do their best, but not only is the dialogue terrible, there’s often no discernible reasons for scenes and interactions to exists at all – it’s as though Getty has been taking notes on human social norms from a blind, Jane Goodall style, and has transcribed them as best he can manage for the cast and camera to do what they can with.
If you’re feeling charitable, you could chalk that up to the film’s tendency to blur dream and waking states – much is made of Dennis having trouble telling if he’s awake or asleep, and that conceit yields some of the film’s creepier moments. But we also spend a lot of time with John and Lydia as the hash out their (boring, pointless) relationship, so that explanation doesn’t quite wash. The metatextual reason, however, is that Meyer and Flannery bailed on the production at some point, along with most of the rest of the cast, and so what we’re getting is what Getty could put together in the editing suite. That and “drugs”, of course.
This gives the film a disjointed, otherworldly kind of vibe, even when we’re supposed to be spending time in the “real” world; characters crop up and wander off at random, conversations consist of intersecting non-sequiturs, and the pastel Californian universe the film inhabits continues to function in its erratic, vaguely off-putting way while Dennis fills the basement with rotting corpses.
And that’s the thing: The Evil Within does function as a horror movie, complete with imaginative kills (a power drill gets put to good use at one point), some striking design and practical effects work and, of course, the aforementioned disquieting atmosphere, which we almost certainly wouldn’t have gotten with a filmmaker who swung more to the median of human behaviour. The effects work is worth noting – much of it was designed and created by Getty, and it’s all old school in-camera stuff, makeup, prosthetics, and even stop-motion. Add to that the unforgettable visage of genre veteran Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes), who plays the mirror entity when it doesn’t look like Dennis, and you get the sense that, if nothing else, Getty was a horror aficionado who had a handle on the tropes and techniques that work in the genre.
He also had something to say. While the signal-to-noise ratio is all over the place, there’s a lot being said here about familial responsibility and familial guilt, about how caring for someone and harming them are two sides of the same coin, about how intimacy can be healing or toxic depending on the context, and most of all about feeling alienated and cut off from the world thanks to something you can’t help. No clear thesis ever emerges, though; Getty is just throwing all his concerns onto his cinematic canvas and smudging them around, desperate to communicate ideas he has trouble articulating. For all that, the strength of his need to communicate is undeniable; you can blame the meth up to a point, but nobody works this long and this hard on a project without a burning conviction that it needs to be made, that some kind of absolution or apotheosis waits at its completion.
Getty never got there, of course. He died. And the final form of The Evil Within is almost certainly not what he wanted (if he even knew what he wanted). But it is a remarkable cinematic artifact that is absolutely worth experiencing. I guarantee you haven’t seen its like before, nor will you again.