Spielberg: Something Evil

WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? Marjorie Worden, the protagonist of Something Evil, is a housewife, mother and craftsy person, married to ad-man Paul. She wants a house in the country.

WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST GET? Marjorie gets a house in the country. A house…of evil!

The structure of Something Evil goes something like this:

ACT I: While weekending in Bucks County Pennsylvania with her husband and kids, Marjorie finds a charming farmhouse for sale. The farmhouse is for sale because the previous owner threw himself out of the hayloft rather than submit to the devil who lives on the property. Oh, that part isn’t mentioned in ads.

Against her husband Paul’s better judgment, Marjorie moves her family to rural Pennsylvania. They have a groundskeeper, Mr. Gehrmann, who cuts off chicken heads and dances around in the yard, and that kind of worries Marjorie, but otherwise things seem okay.

Then, one night Marjorie hears a baby crying out in the barn. She investigates but finds nothing. Then the crying comes from inside the house. Marjorie investigates to find her 9-year-old son crying in his sleep.

Paul, taking advantage of the house’s rustic charm, shoots a commercial for a candy bar on the front porch. The shoot is almost ruined by the sounds of some kind of unholy demon-beast on the boom mike. The actress doing the pitch hangs a good-luck charm (which Marjorie has made from clay) on the mike and the sound goes away.

There is a wrap party for the commercial shoot (featuring future Jaws author Carl Gottlieb, telling a pointless joke), after which the actress and a co-worker die in a fiery car crash. How fiery is the crash? It’s so fiery that it’s one of those car-crashes where the car spontaneously ignites the second it goes off the road, before it has even crashed into anything, that’s how fiery.

ACT II: Marjorie is rattled by the death of Paul’s co-workers. Nevertheless, she accompanies him to a local party, where she meets local old-guy Harry Lincoln, who just happens to be the local expert on the Devil. Harry teaches Marjorie about hexes (which she already kind of already knows about) and spells to keep the devil away. Marjorie paints a hex on the floor of the children’s room.

She hears the mysterious baby crying again, and goes out to the barn to find — a jar of glowing red goo. This, for some reason, freaks the ever-loving shit out of her. She goes out looking for her son one afternoon and finds him in a grape arbor. That, also, for some reason, freaks the ever-loving shit out of her. She hangs out with Harry and learns more about the Devil. She comes to the children’s room and finds them screaming in bed, the air filled with the roars of an unholy beast.

ACT III: Marjorie pleads with Paul to sell the place and move back to New York. Paul, who has seen none of what Marjorie has been going through, grudgingly agrees to do so.

Harry, apropos of nothing, gets killed in his study by the Devil. His son shows up at Marjorie’s house to deliver a long expository monologue on the subject of the old man who killed himself in the hayloft. Meanwhile, in New York, Paul is editing the commercial he shot at the house and finds a mysterious pair of red eyes reflected in a windowpane.

Marjorie gets frightened by another jar of goo and responds by locking the children in their bedroom and proceeding to try to kill herself. She is rescued at the last moment by Gehrmann. Paul arrives in the nick of time to bust open the door to the kids’ room, where Marjorie finds her son hovering in mid-air (I think), spouting Devilish. She grabs ahold of him and tells him she loves him over and over, and gradually the kid returns to normal and Marjorie and her family leave the house.

NOTES: As you may gather from the above, Something Evil isn’t a very good movie. Things happen for no particular reason, the protagonist doesn’t have a clear or worthwhile goal, the plot is full of holes, backpedaling and non-sequiturs. The bad-guy plot is incoherent at best and pointless at worst: we never learn what the Devil wants out of Marjorie, why he feels it necessary to possess her son, why her son, why she hears a baby crying, why the couple from the party must die, why Harry must die, nothing. If the Devil wants only to possess Marjorie’s son, there’s nothing stopping him, he doesn’t need jars of scary goo or threatening grape-arbors. The whole movie is just a bunch of plot-points strung along on a wobbly scaffolding of a story, and when there isn’t a worthwhile plot-point, Spielberg just manufactures scares out of thin air — jarring music cues intrude on otherwise scareless scenes, scenes of nothing much happening are jazzed up with “scary editing” to “help them along,” people react to uninteresting phenomena as though it’s the Second Coming.

Stylistically, there’s very little in Something Evil recognizable as Spielberg’s. The same sure-handed, born-with-it sense of movement and kineticsthat informs the fluid direction of Duel is totally absent here, as well as his uncanny knack for telling stories with images. Compositions are cluttered and ugly, camera placement and editing are distressingly clumsy, forced and on-the-nose.

On the other hand, script-wise the movie is almost a rough draft of Poltergeist, which is kind of weird, since it’s also a ripoff of Rosemary’s Baby (complete with Ralph Bellamy as Devil Expert), The Exorcist (complete with lurid show-biz-world death) and even Bewitched (complete with ad-man complaining about his wife the witch). The family is the same configuration as The Freelings (minus the teenage daughter, who barely figures into the narrative of Poltergeist anyway), with the children the same ages. The little sister is even a cute little blond, although she has nothing to do in this movie. As in Poltergeist, it is the mom who must enter the possessed bedroom to save the child while dad waits helpless by the door. In fact, one of the reasons Poltergeist was so refreshing in 1982 was because of tired, cliche-ridden movies like Something Evil, where Mom is convinced the house is evil but Dad is too busy with work to bother, and there’s a pointless scare for every plot-advancing scare, and so on.

One of the themes of early Spielberg seems to be Fathers At Odds With Their Families. David Mann in Duel is oppressed by his family, and Clovis in The Sugarland Express is driven literally to death by the demands of his pushy wife. The father in Something Evil isn’t so scornful, but he is absent, self-involved and beside the point. For those looking for autobiographical messages, in Something Evil the name of the boy caught in this parental crossfire, the one ultimately possessed by the Devil, is Steven.

Something Evil was written by Robert Clouse, who would almost immediately go on to direct Enter The Dragon. Small world.

Something Evil, an ABC Movie of the Week shot between Duel and Sugarland, has not been officially released. The version I saw I got at my local cool video store, and is most likely pirated. I have no idea where these things come from, but the DVD I watched had been tricked out with actual 1973 commercials in the place of the station breaks, which make the experience of watching Something Evil quite a bit more worthwhile. You get to see Joey Heatherton singing and dancing for Serta, June Lockhart pitching Shake ‘n’ Bake, plus commercials for other Movies of the Week like The Longest Night, And No One Could Save Her and Snatched. Speaking of Snatched, there’s also a commercial for Pristeen feminine hygiene spray.
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18 Responses to “Spielberg: Something Evil”
  1. planettom says:

    Speaking of those weird ABC Movies Of The Week (KILLDOZER and DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK with the creatures that live under the fireplace come to mind, and I remember ISN’T IT SHOCKING? with Alan Alda as a smalltown sheriff trying to solve electrocution murders), there’s one I remember that I can never quite figure out which movie it was.

    I think the plot involves someone who gets buried alive (there were several like that), but distinctively I recall that the guilty guy who did it, TELLTALE HEART-style, is looking into his brandy snifter or wineglass or whatever, and sees images of the woman. Then he startles and throws the glass and it breaks. Anyone know what movie this was?

    I concede that I may be combining two different movies; one with a buried alive plot, and one with a guy with a haunted brandy snifter.

  2. popebuck1 says:

    The TV movie I remember most vividly was called THE BERMUDA DEPTHS, and it kind of freaked me out as a kid.

    It starts with two kids, a boy and a girl, playing on a beach. Then the girl finds a tortoise, which swims away with her on its back!

    Cut to years later, and the now-grownup boy (played by Leigh McCloskey!) is convinced his old girlfriend (a) is still alive and (b) has turned into a mermaid, or a malevolent sea goddess, or something. More to the point, the tortoise is still alive, and has grown into a giant Gamera-type monster. It’s all very strange and moody, and I seem to recall thinking even at the time that it all made very little sense. And I just now looked it up on IMDB, and the girl who might or might not be an avenging sea goddess was none other than The Greatest American Hero‘s girlfriend, Connie Selleca! Who knew?

    And the theme song was so dreadful that it’s implanted itself in my mind all these years: a mournful guitar strums while a folkish male singer moans “Jennie… I can’t believe you’re gone, Jennie…” over and over again. Hmm, maybe the entire plot was a homage to the freaky (but wonderful!) Joseph Cotten fantasy PORTRAIT OF JENNIE, which featured Jennifer Jones as another mysterious young woman who may actually be a water-based spirit.

    Anyway, reading the IMDB listing has made me curious to see this thing again.

    • greyaenigma says:

      Oh god. I remember Bermuda Depths. That one scared me as a kid.

      The other horror movie from that era (likely a little later) was named something like It Came From Beneath, about a drilling platform that dredges up some kind of alien egg thing that turns people into monsters. fun stuff.

      • popebuck1 says:

        There was also THE STRANGER WITHIN, with Barbara Eden as a housewife who gets impregnated and mind-possessed by an alien, and who (I think) gradually turns into a monster herself.

        I remember this one because it had David Doyle (Bosley from “Charlie’s Angels”) as a friendly neighbor who, conveniently for the plot, happens to be into hypnotism. He is able to hypnotize Eden and thus “interview” the alien within her – and one of his first questions, asked completely straight-faced, is “How was the woman impregnated?”

        Amazing how fast a person’s mental processes can jump from “OMG, the neighbor lady is behaving strangely!” to “So tell me, Mr. Alien Lifeforce – how was the woman impregnated?”

    • greyaenigma says:

      Holy cow, it was Rankin/Bass, no less.

  3. greyaenigma says:

    Hmmm. My family had a farm in Bucks County in 1972, and that’s the year my family moved away from Pennsylvania.


    I think so!

    She hears the mysterious baby crying again, and goes out to the barn to find — a jar of glowing red goo. This, for some reason, freaks the ever-loving shit out of her.

    Clearly you’ve never tried Three Mile Island Raspberry Jam.

  4. craigjclark says:

    Until I got to the last paragraph, I was going to ask how you got hold of this as I had never heard of it before. And apparently Spielberg did another Movie of the Week after this one called Savage, which starred Martin Landau.

    • Todd says:

      Yeah, I’m going to try to track that one down.

      The DVD of Something Evil is about the quality one would expect from a DVD pirated from, I’m guessing, a VHS tape taped off the air from The Mystery Channel.

      • planettom says:

        It’s rather fascinating that whoever bootlegged it then inserted 1973 commercials….

        It’s like the SEINFELD where he’s forced to videotape a movie in the theater, and becomes an auteur. “I want three cameras, one in the balcony!”

  5. moroccomole says:

    I remember watching Something Evil with when we were in college — it came on the local NBC affiliate one night after SNL and we were going to turn it off until we saw Spielberg’s credit. All I remember about it are the hex signs and the suckiness.

    • curt_holman says:

      I almost missed this post.

      I vividly remember Something Evil having a lame, crappy sub-Burnt Offerings vibe, and you and I saying words to the effect of “He went from making Duel to THIS?”

      I remember the opening death, but wish I could remember those jars of goo.

  6. urbaniak says:

    According to the IMDB (who have been known to get things wrong) Speilberg’s also in it (no character given).

    • craigjclark says:

      Holy carp. Bruce VeSota’s in it, too! At last, we have it: the missing link between Spielberg and Roger Corman. (For those not in the know, VeSota is a veteran of numerous Corman films of the ’50s and ’60s.)

    • Todd says:

      Well, there are two party scenes and two “behind-the-scenes” advertising scenes — since Spielberg wasn’t old enough to drink, I’m guessing he’s in the advertising scenes.

      Geez, what was it about the advertising world that held the US in thrall from the early 60s to the early 70s?

    • greyaenigma says:

      Here’s hoping he played the Bucks County Assessor’s Office Clerk.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Spielberg juvenilia…

    Alcott – thanks for these pieces on early Spielberg. I’ve always wanted to see them, but part of me suspected I’d be disappointed. In a way, these entries are as informative and probably more entertaining than the films themselves.