As a first time filmmaker, it takes a lot of courage to not follow the trends. The early ‘80s were flooded with slashers, and for good reason; they were, for the most part, instant ATMs to the studios. Thank God then (or Satan, your florist, a masseuse, whatever floats your boat) for Frank LaLoggia, a New Yorker in his mid-20s who decided to go epic out of the gate with Fear No Evil (1981), a parable on Good Versus Evil, capital letters, with a strong Catholic bent filtered through Carrie’s prom dress.

Filmed in 1979 with initial funding coming from LaLoggia and the rest from Avco Embassy (who ended up releasing it), this January release found little love from critics (except for Variety) but did pick up the Saturn Award for Best Low Budget Film – and well earned, indeed. Fear No Evil boasts high production values, (more or less) solid performances, and an ambitious concept beyond its means, but not its heart.

The film opens with Lucifer being chased through a castle on a New York Bay before being vanquished by an old man with a golden staff. We hear tell of a prophecy - three archangels (in human form) will band together to smite The Devil, paving the way for the return of Jesus Christ. BUT, it has to be the power of all three and so far only two have arrived on earth, meaning this particular conquest over Lucifer is only temporary as he promises to be reborn soon.

We then cut to the christening of  newborn Andrew Williams (played as an adult by Stefan Arngrim – Land of the Giants) which doesn’t go as planned, Andrew bleeding from his wrists as he is anointed (Lucifer fast tracked his return, I guess – no rest for the wicked and all that). Through a clever time lapse of the dilapidation of the exterior of the Williams home, we learn that Andrew has taken over their lives and left his parents defeated. School’s no different; Meek, effeminate Andrew is able to thwart his bullies through vigorous gym exercises (dodgeball is the worst) and exposing their latent homosexuality. Meanwhile, our third archangel has arrived in the form of fellow student Julie (Kathleen Rowe McAllen – Aspects of Love), and the final battle is fought at the castle during a production of the Passion Play, where all hell literally breaks loose. Will the triptych be able to defeat Lucifer before he can begin his reign on earth? (Spoiler: There will be casualties.)

I used to watch Fear No Evil a lot as an adolescent; it acted as a palette cleanser for the glut of slashers I was invested in, a reminder that not all horror had to be concerned with the everyday, mundane trappings of summer camps and sorority sleepovers. Which isn’t to say that it’s better made or above the best of those, but the ambition was appealing and the execution stylish enough to overcome any shortcomings the film encounters (and there are a few). And as we’ve cycled through meta-slashers and monsters, plus a few films that owe a debt to this one (I’m looking at you, The Prophecy), it’s these very same attributes that I’m inclined to cling to.

The notion of archangels inhabiting the bodies of the earthbound gives the film poignancy and grandeur at odds with the high school “revenge” angle that Andrew pursues; but in doing so it also raises questions of faith and mortality. The archangels have to come to accept their roles as warriors in the name of God, and LaLoggia doubles down with some melodramatic but effective scenes between Elizabeth Hoffman (Dante’s Peak – the Ruth, the Ruth is on fire!) and John Holland (Chinatown) as two of the chosen. As the third and youngest, McAllen has a clear-eyed freshness well suited for her role as the newest guardian of good. As for our high school villain, Daniel Eden as Tony makes an effective sub-Travolta, although Billy Nolan was never impelled to kiss another man in the shower or grow a pair of breasts. (I think. I haven’t watched Carrie in a while.) Arngrim is a suitable Antichrist; he’s birdlike and curious, with a calm demeanor that explodes once it’s time for the final showdown. Unlike Damien Thorn, however, Andrew prefers to bring it and shows up in an outfit akin to a Bob Mackie – Kiss collaboration. (And why not? If you’re going to rule the world, do it in style.)

As far as a commentary on Catholicism goes, the film wants to have its holy bread and eat it too. The Williams family certainly has all the tchotchkes on display, even though dad seems to find his solace in spirits from the liquor store rather than the church. But the final stand at the Passion Play goes full out with a crucifixion that becomes bloodier than Mel Gibson’s due to Andrew’s influence, and for some reason, he has a horde of zombies that do his bidding. (This film is everything but a slasher.)

So, Fear No Evil is a film then that embraces, rather than ignores, its thematic inconsistencies. Whether Tony gets his comeuppance because he’s still in the closet or because he’s a hypocrite is unclear (I believe the latter), and between the earnest light shows signifying heavenly power and the desecration of sacred imagery (that crucifixion is pretty dope, though), it’s hard to tell if LaLoggia is going for solemnity or shock. His follow-up film, Lady in White (1988), certainly finds a consistent tone that this one never attains. But the fun in ambition is watching a first timer shoot for the stars. Fear No Evil may eventually end up earthbound, but it’s a blast watching it rattle the pearly gates.

Fear No Evil is available on DVD from Starz/Anchor Bay.

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