Something Evil (1972)
(disturbing supernatural/horror elements)
Released: January 21, 1972
Runtime: 75 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Sandy Dennis, Darren McGavin, Ralph Bellamy
I used to say that Steven Spielberg never made a bad movie – technically speaking, at least; he’s too good a craftsman for that – even if a few haven’t been so good. Then I saw Something Evil. As far as cinematic quality is concerned, it sure lives up to its title.
It’s mindboggling, really, that this horrible (and horribly dated) TV Movie Of The Week was actually steered by Spielberg. Debuting just a little over 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 gave him a shot at feature films, Something Evil would be the one that could’ve caused a studio head to rescind that offer.
I don’t know any of this production’s backstory, but it’s so poorly made in every respect that one is easily tempted to assume that it was, for Spielberg, the ultimate “work for hire” gig. Seemingly, whether by budget limitations or production hierarchy (which is different in TV than film) or both, the opportunity didn’t allow for Spielberg’s personal stamp, let alone inspire it.
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 is deceptive, though, and only the mother begins to suspect that something is wrong. And as she does, her husband and others thinks she’s going insane.
Something Evil and Duel are interesting films to compare and contrast, and not just because they’re two early 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 surprise with character layers and narrative invention. Secondly, for as tense as Duel is, Something Evil isn’t – yet the reverse should actually be true. In the end, Duel is a movie driven by a director’s confident, assured vision while Something Evil is churned out with an apparent, and 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. Yet even TV’s content limitations of the time can’t excuse the lackluster execution of this material, especially since the final version didn’t seem particularly shy about dabbling in the demonic.
Almost entirely bereft of style or even a hint of latent cinematic genius, Something Evil is a truly bizarre anomaly in the history of a master filmmaker – and for Spielberg Completists only.
- 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.
- This screenplay was written by Robert Clouse. His only other notable film credit was directing Bruce Lee’s only 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.
- Technically speaking, there is one more TV movie in 1973 that Spielberg directed – called Savage – that won’t be included in this retrospective. Here’s why:
- One, it’s not available anywhere, not even on YouTube. So there’s that.
- Two, even if it were, it was actually a failed series pilot that was never picked up. Given that, it was more an artistic vision of that would-be series creator and executive producer, not of Spielberg. After it failed to make series, this pilot aired as a TV movie.
- Incidentally, Savage co-starred Martin Landau and Barbara Bain. Two years later they’d co-star in a UK series that ran for two years: Space 1999. It was eventually broadcast in North America via syndication.