While some directors learned their craft through thrift bare independent features, others came up through the TV divisions of studios; one such fellow, Steven Spielberg, would go on to have a fairly successful career with big screen projects. Before he would make that leap however, he started with episodic shows, and then onto TV films like Something Evil (1972), a fun ride that shows the kid knows his way around a camera. I’m glad things turned out okay for him.
Originally airing on January 21st as part of the CBS Friday Night Movies, Something Evil had the ABC Friday night juggernaut of The Odd Couple/Love, American Style to contend with, and posted Something Lesser in the ratings. Too bad, because even though Something Evil’s material, from the title on down, is paper thin, Spielberg whips up one hell of a wallpaper.
Crack open your faux TV GUIDE and see what the wunderkind has in store:
SOMETHING EVIL (Friday, 9:30pm, CBS)
A family from the city relocates to a country home where they reside with an unwanted, evil spirit. Darren McGavin, Sandy Dennis star.
Meet the Worden (McGavin, Dennis, Johnny Whitaker, and the usual little girl role played by twins) clan. Out for a picnic in the country, they come across a rustic farmhouse in the country, and at the pressing of mom Marjorie, decide to move the family there for a more idyllic lifestyle. Things seem off right from the start, as caretaker Gehrmann (Jeff Corey – Beneath the Planet of the Apes) yells at Marjorie not to touch the painted pentacle on the side of the house when he isn’t busy dancing in the field, spreading chicken blood everywhere.
Dad Paul is in advertising, and chooses the house to film a new commercial. When the lead actress and a crew member are killed in a car crash following a wrap party in which she dispenses pentacles for everyone to wear (the ‘70s, amirite?), Marjorie begins to feel that something doesn’t want her family in the house. Perhaps...Something Not Very Nice At All?
This tale of possession (or is it a haunting?) won’t win any awards for originality, but as in many works of horror, how you do can be as effective as how you say. Something Evil’s story is by the numbers, if half those numbers were randomly erased by a rambunctious child. Filled with vague statements by exposition guru Ralph Bellamy (Rosemary’s Baby) as a kindly neighbor, the biggest takeaway plot-wise is that evil can infest a place and not just a person, and that if one believes in God so should it go for Satan. Oh, and that love can vanquish evil. Director Robert Clouse (Enter the Dragon) wrote the teleplay, and let’s just say his knack for story development was not as strong as filming kinetic Kung-Fu.
This may seem like a lot of ragging (actually, the dialogue is pretty good) but the viewer should know that the telefilms of the ‘70s, due to restrictive budgets, usually relied on story; there were very limited funds for visual flourishes to entice, and the small screen was generally known for hitting the mark and making sure everyone was in frame.
But the young upstart Spielberg was not “the usual” and right from the opening scene, as the previous ranch owner is chased by an unseen force until he swan dives from the upper barn window, he opens up his camera and allows it to move, pulling the viewer along with him. Nearly every scene offers up anything but the usual angles, instead using camera placement to propel the tale. And it’s a sight to behold; watching other telefilms of the era, Something Evil and his previous effort, Duel (’71), his cinematic eye stood apart from other efforts that played within the restrictions of the form, instead of against it. I’m sure youthful hubris played a part, but certainly no one stopped him from breathing extra life into the format.
A good cast goes a long way, and McGavin (The Night Stalker) does another solid variation on his worrisome, disgruntled persona while Dennis (God Told Me To) is (as always) sympathetic as the increasingly hysterical Marjorie. If you’re a ‘70s kid like me, Johnny Whitaker (Sigmund and the Sea Monsters) was the kid, a red haired moppet with a beaming smile ubiquitous in everything from Disney to Sid & Marty Krofft; he gets to play some serious beats here, and well at that. Oh, and John Rubinstein (The Car) makes a very creepy impression as Bellamy’s nephew.
Something Evil really belongs to Spielberg, though; the big screen was calling and in two short years he would make his feature film debut, The Sugarland Express, and then *checks notes* other films that would showcase his virtuosic touch and empathetic heart. It just goes to show: talent is talent no matter which avenue is taken.