Something Evil (1972)
(disturbing supernatural/horror elements)
Released: January 21, 1972
Runtime: 75 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Sandy Dennis, Darren McGavin, Ralph Bellamy
Available to watch on YouTube.
I used to say that Steven Spielberg had never made a bad movie (technically speaking, at least; he’s too good a craftsman for that), even if a few of them haven’t been so good.
Then I saw Something Evil. As far as cinematic quality goes, hoo boy, it sure lives up to its title. It’s mind-boggling, quite frankly, that this horrible (and horribly dated) CBS TV Movie Of The Week was actually steered by Spielberg.
Debuting just two months after Duel initially aired, it bares none of the aesthetic hallmarks or tonal mastery of that previous small budget masterpiece. If Duel was the movie that garnered him a shot at feature films, then Something Evil could’ve been the to cause a studio head to rescind that offer. (Thankfully, that didn’t happen.)
I don’t know any of the backstory behind this production — if it was rushed, a troubled shoot, etc. — but Something Evil is so poorly made in every single respect that one is easily tempted to assume that, for Spielberg, this was the ultimate “work for hire” gig.
Seemingly, whether by budget limitations or studio dictates (or both), the opportunity apparently didn’t allow for Spielberg to place anything close to a personal aesthetic stamp. In hindsight, he’s probably lucky that the only way you’d ever guess he made this embarrassment is by seeing the actual “Directed by” credit.
The premise is simple, and plays like a rural Poltergeist. When a couple and their two young kids move into a Pennsylvania farmhouse haunted by demons (and possibly the devil himself), their oldest son becomes possessed. The possession, however, is deceptive, and only the mother begins to suspect that something is…evil. And as she does, her husband and others begin to think that she’s going insane.
Something Evil and Duel are interesting films to compare and contrast, and not just because they’re two early Steven Spielberg TV movies.
For one, Something Evil has a premise loaded with possibilities while Duel’s seems, on the surface, extremely thin. Yet it’s Something Evil that feels laboriously padded and strung out with contrived material, while Duel continues to engage and surprise with character layers and narrative invention.
Secondly, for as tense as Duel is, Something Evil isn’t. The reverse should actually be true, or at least tension should be much more easily achieved here. But in the end, Duel is the movie driven by a director’s confident, assured vision while Something Evil is churned out with an apparent, even palpable, lack of disinterest.
It’s easy to understand why CBS fast-tracked this to air. It came at a time when films like Rosemary’s Baby and books like The Exorcist (which would become a movie soon enough) were capturing the cultural zeitgeist.
It may be easy to blame television’s content limitations of that era from nearly fifty years ago, but even that can’t excuse the completely lackluster execution of the material, especially since the final version didn’t seem at all shy about dabbling in the demonic. (Parental discretion strongly advised, FYI.)
Lacking even a hint of latent cinematic genius, Something Evil is a truly bizarre anomaly in the history of a master filmmaker, and something for Spielberg Completists only.
If you are one, you can watch Something Evil on YouTube for free, here (and nowhere else, as it never received an official home video release), or in the embedded link below…if you dare!
- The cinematographer for Something Evil was Bill Butler. He would work with Spielberg one more time, on Jaws.
- Jaws screenwriter Carl Gottlieb makes a brief appearance as a party guest.
- The script for Something Evil was written by Robert Clouse. His only other notable film credit was directing Bruce Lee’s sole English-speaking starring role, Enter The Dragon.
- The dad was played by Darren McGavin. A decade later, he would become one of the most famous dad’s in movie history: Ralphie’s father in A Christmas Story.