Steven Spielberg once made a supernatural horror movie, and it’s probably not the one you’re thinking of.
A decade before Poltergeist’s haunted house, a film Spielberg didn’t technically direct, and four years before the aquatic horror of Jaws there was Something Evil, a CBS Movie of the Week made on the quick to capitalize on the popularity of William Peter Blatty’s then newly released novel The Exorcist. Of course, being first to market didn’t mean much for Something Evil in the long-term. In fact, if not for the film’s famous director it would almost certainly be forgotten by now, only living on as perhaps the answer to a particularly difficult trivia question, such as “Name the haunted house movie starring Sandy Dennis and the dad from A Christmas Story.” Now it’s just the answer to the following question: What movie did Steven Spielberg make after Duel?
Two days ago, that question would have stumped me. I knew an impossibly young Spielberg directed several TV episodes and TV movies, and after that the popular narrative has always seemed to go like this: He made Duel, about a senseless and unrelenting series of attacks staged by an intimidating truck against a random driver in a much smaller car on the highway, and then he just replaced the car with a shark in Jaws. Except, of course, he didn’t go straight from Duel to Jaws. Prior to Jaws, there was his feature film debut, 1974’s oft-forgotten Sugarland Express, and prior to that he directed the feature-length pilot for a Martin Landau show (Savage) as well as Something Evil.
I know all of that now because in anticipation of Ready Player One, Spielberg’s first science-fiction blockbuster since War of the Worlds, I decided to look at some of his earlier genre films, with an emphasis on the ones I haven’t seen or have only ever seen once. Then I saw it, right there near the bottom of his Letterboxd filmography: Something Evil.
Spielberg made an Exorcist-like movie? WTF? This, I have to see (thanks, YouTube!).
Yeah…about that. Have you ever watched a director’s earliest work and come away thinking the only thing of interest was simply noticing all the little tricks, shots, and themes which later popped up in a far more polished fashion in that same director’s more popular movies? Well, that’s what it’s like to watch Something Evil now. You enjoy it mostly for the various ways it kind of reminds you of Poltergeist (one scene is lifted entirely) or Jaws (the evil remains largely unseen). Plus, there are fascinating bits of possibly unintended autobiography, such as a dad who is always at work (just like Spielberg’s was), a mom who is more friend than parent (just like Spielberg’s), and the fact that the little boy at the center of the story is actually named Stevie.
The story involves a family of four moving into a lovely ranch home two hours outside the city. The long commute ensures the father (Darren McGavin), an advertising salesman, isn’t around that much, leaving the fragile mother (Sandy Dennis, 5 years removed from winning an Oscar at that point) to cope with inexplicable noises, seemingly supernatural wind gusts, and an increasingly unhinged son (Johnny Whitaker). There’s also a young, Carol Anne-looking daughter around as well, who never talks, and a couple of neighboring old-timers muttering in Dennis’ ear about the house being haunted.
Infamous horror expert Kim Newman is a fan of the film, writing in his book Nightmare Movies, “For a TV movie, Something Evil is excellent. Idiosyncrasies in dialogue, performance and direction bring to life a storyline that is as bland as can be expected from a medium which institutionalizes mediocrity.”
Which, same. Something Evil is a perfectly fine TV movie for its era, with just quirky enough performances and understandably better-than-average direction. Sandy Dennis, turns out, is quite the good scream queen. Spielberg’s filming of the wind bearing down on the mother and her kids almost predicts Sam Raimi’s infamous projectile cam from Evil Dead. One rather standard bit of exposition is delivered in ingeniously chilling fashion by a rather peculiar neighbor through a barely opened door:
Elsewhere, there’s a POV sequence which made me feel like I was suddenly playing Resident Evil, investigating at night with only a flashlight in front of me:
But Something Evil is also very much of its era in terms of pacing. Even at just over 70 minutes long, there are sequences which seem to stretch on forever, such as Dennis’ very slow nighttime walk to the family barn to investigate the bizarre (clearly fake) sound of a baby crying (the MST3K crew would have fun with that scene). Moreover, as a TV movie, it is decidedly watered-down in its scares. Jaws made people scared to go back in the water again, but Something Evil was never going to make anyone overly scared of Johnny Whitaker or ranch houses. It’s a film easily surpassed in its time by The Exorcist, and now barely registers on anyone’s radar unless you’re a Spielberg completist. But if you want a watered down Exorcist (that never actually gets to the exorcism part) with some early versions of camera tricks Spielberg would later perfect, Something Evil might be of interest. It is available for free on YouTube right now.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHT
An ode to Johnny Whitaker’s 1971 hair: