Welcome to Let’s All Scare Bryan to Death, my new column based on the idea that there are a lot of horror movies in the world, and I haven’t seen a lot of them. I’m going to work on changing that with the help of people who love horror and are smarter than me (re: everyone) by getting them to introduce me to a movie I’ve never seen before. That’s literally the only criteria. We’ll talk about the movie and see what kind of fun stuff we can pull out of it.
For my first installment, I decided to jump right into the deep end with Andrea Subissati, who you may know as the Executive Editor at Rue Morgue Magazine, one half of the Faculty of Horror podcast, and simply one of the most intelligent voices in horror today. Her selection for this most auspicious inaugural installment is the 2017 surrealist nightmare The Evil Within. The film follows Dennis (Frederick Koehler), a young man with a mental disability who lives with his brother, John (Sean Patrick Flannery). While John is looking for a way to gracefully have Dennis moved into an assisted living community so that he can focus on starting a family with his girlfriend, Lydia (Dina Myer), Dennis finds himself tormented by an evil entity known as The Storyteller (Michael Berryman), who tries to influence him into committing darker and darker acts.
If you’ve already heard of this film, it’s probably because of its wild production history. Writer/director Andrew Getty was an heir to a billionaire oil family who used his money to fund making a movie. What started as a simple enough project with principal photography beginning in 2002 turned into an odyssey of obsession spanning over 15 years, with Getty agonizing over every minute detail until he tragically passed away in 2015 after pouring almost all of his $4-6 million fortune into the movie. Two years later, the film’s producer put final touches on the film to get it released.
Subissati notes that The Evil Within has a spot close to her heart, as it was one of the first movies she took a chance on when she took over the reins at Rue Morgue:
I was working my second-ever issue and I got this pitch from John Bowen (if you're familiar with John Bowen's career with us at Rue Morgue, he is hands-down one of the best writers we've ever had). He saw something in this film. He said, “It’s kind of a weird film, got an interesting production history. I don't know if you want to check it out.” I checked it out and I loved it. And so my decision to cover it for the magazine was a bit unconventional. It was a brand-new release, it didn't have super-wide distribution at the time. It was like straight to video, no theatrical release. I wanted John to write it because he had a very personal connection to the film and I wanted to go that way, so to speak. I wanted my writers to write from the heart. I wanted to explore the kind of horror that got people in the feels, and so this film really just fit the bill. So, I feel like it was kind of the first real chance I took. It was kind of a gamble.
After watching the film myself, I have a hard time calling it a conventionally “good” movie. The dialogue and performances are a bit spotty and a lot of seams show in the production value. However, it is an extremely interesting movie, and not just in that Troll 2, so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. There’s something there that I had a hard time putting my finger on, and Subissati was able to shed some light on that:
I watch so many films that are made by committee. For example, you watch Winchester and in the first 10 minutes you know how it's going to end. It sets up the archetypes, it sets the stage, and you just know exactly how it's going to go. Maybe it's good, maybe it's not great, but it's got this very predictable arc. In the first ten minutes of The Evil Within, that trajectory, that path, that formula is obliterated. And the visuals were so frightening and so unpredictable that it makes me feel so unsafe. I love absurdist horror, I love J-horror. I love the really bizarro stuff. For me, I actually found this film terrifying to watch. I saw it at the twilight hour of the evening where you put it on and by the time it's over the sun has gone down, and you haven't turned any lights on so you're in pitch black. My partner was still at work and I remember texting people because I needed to feel the outside world.
This is definitely a film that flies without a safety net. Anything can happen partly because Getty wasn’t stuck operating within the boundaries of someone with formal film experience. His screenplay had its issues, but I was really impressed with his work as a director and his use of cinematography for someone working on their first movie. I was also amazed by his effort for seemingly small elements of the film, like an animatronic octopus seen in the background of a Chuck E. Cheese-style pizza restaurant. Subissati explains that such details were an interesting product of his obsessive nature:
This is a vanity project in a way, in that this is very much Andrew Getty’s baby. He wrote it, he directed it, this was his. It was autobiographical in a sense and you can tell that he had a very strong connection, and in the cover story in Rue Morgue (not to plug my own magazine here), the producer was talking about how he would fixate on certain things because he wanted them to happen the way he imagined them. So it was a vanity project insofar as he wanted it to be his way. He really wanted it to look exactly the way it looked in his head. But at the same time, it wasn't about aggrandizing him. I don't think he necessarily wanted to make Citizen Kane. He wanted to make something very sincere and very true to his vision and whatever money and time it took, he gave it.
Getty’s insular, one-man approach did lead to some questionable choices, particularly the decision to cast a character with a mental disability with an actor that doesn’t have one. Admittedly, a lot of horror movies tend to have issues with their approach to depicting and casting characters who struggle with mental health issues, and Subissati provided some interesting insight into Getty’s choices:
Early on we see there are two Dennises. There's a Dennis that can articulate himself. Then we see him through his own eyes where he's like, “You know I can't use the fifty-cent words.” So he did kind of have to have an actor who is able to play both sides of it like that, but I do agree that it's such a touchy characterization in an increasingly politically correct world, which I'm behind 100%. But that's kind of why this movie, if presented to a committee of executives, would have never gotten off the ground. And yet Andrew Getty tackled these very contentious subjects with a great sincerity. There's an honesty that comes through in it and it's not gratuitous.
An interesting layer to this idea is that in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, actor Frederick Koehler claimed he was essentially playing Andrew Getty. I’d be interested to know if that was just an inference from Koehler or if Getty deliberately directed him with that in mind, and I wondered to Subissati how Getty actually saw himself:
I did get the sense from John Bowen's article that the producer [Michael Luceri] was shocked to read after [Getty’s] death [that] people were referring to him as kind of a jerk and an a**hole, and not an awesome guy. And it really bothered [the producer] because he said, “I knew a very nice man.” And so I think that Andrew Getty had a sense that there was a perception of him. With how he saw himself, perhaps he didn't recognize the man he saw in the mirror. All these things kind of manifest, the addiction and these things we see in the film. None of us can see ourselves very accurately, and so I think for him to want to externalize that kind of anxiety shows some self-awareness, if not necessarily understanding.
To bring these ideas to the screen, Getty relied on performances that, as I mentioned earlier, came out a bit rough in the finished product. But it should be noted that the actors literally filmed their scenes over the course of years, including one gap between shooting that lasted two years. I can’t imagine what that must have been like for the actors, but Subissati notes that they must have believed in it to keep coming back:
I can imagine [the process] must have been very frustrating, and yet this movie only exists because they came together and they felt strongly enough about their performances and about the material—what little they were able to see and whatever they were able to glean from it—that [they thought] this should exist, and not just in memory of this eccentric billionaire, but I truly feel at least from Michael Berryman, who we also interviewed, he strongly felt that was a worthwhile film.
This does come through in the movie, as even though there are some problems, I didn’t get a sense that anyone was phoning it in. And not only did they keep coming back to give their time, they also chipped in their own finances to finish the film after Getty’s death to make sure it got released. While the movie may have done well with some additional polish, I actually wondered to Subissati if that would have stripped the film of what made it interesting:
I think so. I think for something like this, it's a highly creative amateur debut film and I think I'm okay to let the seams show. I think there was a lot of potential in Andrew Getty as a filmmaker, and even if this film hadn’t come out as it did... I mean it probably wouldn't have. If he hadn't died, he probably would have continued making it another 15 years. But yeah, it is interesting to see what a career he might have had in Hollywood with some of that polish.
I think the film’s rough edges also contributed to the bad rap it caught from some people who said it was incoherent. This is definitely one of those films that some people will stare at blankly, wondering what the hell it was they just watched. I don’t think that’s a detriment to Getty’s work, but instead speaks to some layers of the film that also struck Subissati:
I've seen this film a handful of times and everytime I see it, something else kind of clicks. Some things are more apparent on the rewatch. I think I did find [a scene leading up to the climax] a little bit confusing in that I expected it to be explained further, but it wasn't. The crazy tableau at the end has so much going on both narratively and visually that I think I missed a couple of things the first time I watched it. I actually screened this in CineMacabre in Toronto and I was so nervous. You know when you're sitting at the cinema at a movie that you love, and if people laugh the wrong times you take it personally, like you're somehow mortified, as if you made this film, like you made this project in some way? I think it’s a masterpiece and I stand behind it. It's not perfect, but it's very watchable, it's very creative, it's declared, and it's problematic sh*t, man, that's how I like my cinema.
In the end, I think The Evil Within is a messy, imperfect movie. But it’s too compelling to ignore, and people should see it. When I asked Subissati how she would recommend it to someone, and how much of the backstory related to Getty is necessary, she leaned into its imperfection as a selling point:
It's unfettered, balls to the wall, no f*cks given creativity, and there's something very pure about that. That purity is only afforded to people who have the money, the commitment, and the wherewithal to see a project like this through. So, when I recommend this movie, I think a little bit of backstory is necessary. It was made by an eccentric heir to the Getty fortune. That sets the stage for something special, which it is.