The F*cking Black Sheep: Something Evil (1972)

THE BLACK SHEEP is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATH. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Dig in!



Steven Spielberg. Arguably the world’s greatest filmmaker. If not, he’s certainly among the most critically and commercially successful to ever do it. Never mind the man’s preternatural ability to find and mine universally appealing material, his chameleonic characteristic of, without a seam, moving from high-concept tent-pole blockbuster fare – JAWS, E.T., JURASSIC PARK, etc. – to powerfully provoking prestige pictures like SCHINDLER’S LIST, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, MUNICH, etc. – is seriously second to none.

Framing it that way, what’d you think of READY PLAYER ONE? Does the septuagenarian Spielberg still flash the cinematic mastery? Has he sustained his top-notch filmmaking chops? The very chops, mind you, he not only developed with his celebrated 1971 TV movie DUEL, but his lesser known 1972 small-screen follow-up, SOMETHING EVIL. If ever there was a Black Sheep of a forgotten film among Spielberg’s illustrious Hall of Fame film canon, SOMETHING EVIL is it. You know what though? Having revisited the film just the other day, I can tell you with confidence, Spielberg began rewriting the grammar of cinema before even mounting a theatrical debut. SOMETHING EVIL may be a F*cking Black Sheep as it relates to Spielberg, but it’s still a pretty damn solid haunted house yarn. Let’s dig into why below!

First the premise, for those who know not. SOMETHING EVIL is a simple idea executed with admirable style. The Wordens, a family of four, decides to move into a Pennsylvania farmhouse, only to slowly learn the place is beset by a satanic supernatural presence. The great Darren McGavin (A CHRISTMAS STORY, KOLCHAK) plays the powerful patriarch and big city adman Paul Worden, who’s working on a new ketchup pitch. His mousy wife Marhorie (Sandy Dennis) talks Paul into buying a quaint little countryside farmhouse, thinking it the perfect place for their young children Stevie (Johnny Whitaker) and Laurie (Debbie and Sandy Lempert) to grow up in. Thing is, they aren’t privy to what we the audience are, namely that a demonic presence in the house plummeted the previous tenant to his death from the second story of the barn. Good thing the great Ralph Bellamy (Randolph Duke in TRADING PLACES) is there to offer help. Or is he up to something far more sinister?!

But it isn’t nearly as much about the what than it is about the HOW that makes SOMETHING EVIL standout. First, by limiting the action to essentially a single locale, going from only two main characters in DUEL to about five or six here, Spielberg wisely keeps the action focused and self-contained. He took the right sort of gradual step up, material wise. And while Darren McGavin is always a formidable presence, the real star of the show here is Sandy Dennis as the increasingly tormented Marjorie. It’s her eyes through which we see this story, and as Spielberg would go on to show, he was an absolute master at casting. Dennis has ghostly pale skin and a gauntly skeletal look about here that perfectly reinforces the spookier aspects of SE. Same goes for the elected film stock, the grit and grain of classic 70s genre classics shines through here with a washed out, faded quality that instantly lends an ethereality to the whole film. For a cheaply budgeted, quickly made TV movie, Spielberg’s specs were on point from the jump!

What really strikes one though when watching SE today is how dynamic Spielberg’s dazzling camerawork is, how entertaining the story remains until the end, and perhaps most importantly, the sly misdirection he exacts to somewhat trick the audience in the end. Seriously, anyone who still contends Tobe Hooper solely directed POLTERGEIST without the help of Spileberg need look no further than SE to see a similar style of suburban unease. Hell, Laurie Worden looks almost identical to Heather O’Rourke (Carol Anne), as we’d see 10 years later. Furthermore, the ambient-lit, Norman Rockwell normality of those kitchen scenes, chock full of piercing paranoia, really do feel like a connected POLTERGEIST predecessor.

The way Spielberg shoots, frames, composes and moves the camera in SE is not only nascent for his own personal directorial stamp, they’re techniques that would become – when we would master them fully two decades later – as absolutely essential rules of cinematic language that damn near every filmmaker cottons to today. Those hot-white lights he places in the window behind Ralph Bellamy, implicating him in a strange halo effect, is absolutely superb. Or the way in which Spielberg reflects those demonically glowing yellow eyes off of the bedroom window…too damn good. SE flashes more than Speilbergian brilliance. In fact, in one of the early party scenes, Steven makes a quick cameo in the film, talking to Carl Gottlieb, author of JAWS. In that regard, SOMETHING EVIL has more of a direct umbilicus to Spielberg’s future success than you might see at first blush!

To that end, I think the single best plaudit that can be bestowed on SE is how it totally fools you into thinking the bad guy is one person, only to pull the rug out and reveal it was someone else altogether. I loved that. I also loved how, thinking back on it, just as many clues were given as to the real culprit as the false one, rather than randomly and unconvincingly pointing a finger in the end as a lazy conclusion. I hate when movies do that. No, the telltale signs are laid there to be found, and yet, we’re still taken aback when the finale shows its calculating cards. That, to me, is masterful moviemaking. By setting up an audience, making them feel as if the movie is too predictable to be shocked by, and then totally upending that expectation to harrowingly surprising ends. Spielberg had this kind of aplomb at 25 years old!

Extra Tidbit: SOMETHING EVIL is currently unavailable on DVD, Blu-ray or any streaming service.
Source: AITH



Latest Movie News Headlines