There are few story archetypes in horror cinema as resonant as the “worm turns” story. This phrase comes from the Shakespeare play Henry The VI, Part 3 and it is a reference to the idea that even the meekest of creatures will turn on their tormentors and seek revenge if pushed too far. Carrie might be the best-known and most effective version of the “worm turns” concept but it’s been used countless times over the years. No matter how it is treated by the author, the “worm turns” archetype retains a raw power that appeals to the misfits and dark dreamers drawn to this genre.
Evilspeak represents one of the most unusual treatments of the “worm turns” archetype in horror cinema, one that combines an odd combination of elements such as Satan worship, a military academy, personal computers and flesh-eating pigs. However, don’t let that witches’ brew of elements throw you off: the people behind this film knew the power of the “worm turns” concept and they give it a bravura workout.
The outcast protagonist of Evilspeak is Stanley Coopersmith (Clint Howard), a clumsy but well-meaning orphan who is a military academy’s charity student. He just wants to fit in and get along but the school’s popular clique, led by rich kid Bubba (Don Stark), isn’t about to let that happen. They bully him, interfere with his projects and even plot to get him kicked off the soccer team. The school’s faculty isn’t much kinder and even the school’s chaplain (Joseph Cortese) treats him with disdain. Stanley has a few friends in Kowalski (Haywood Nelson) and school cook Jake (Lenny Montana) but it’s not much compensation for the daily abuse he copes with.
However, Stanley has stumbled onto a way to set things right in his life: while on punishment detail, he has discovered the secret worshipping place of Esteban (Richard Moll), a Satanic priest who was banished from Spain centuries ago for his dark practices. Stanley uses one of the school’s computers to communicate with Esteban in hopes of gaining power. Meanwhile, Stanley’s tormentors continue to push him until they finally go too far. Grief-stricken, he completes his turn to the dark side and unleashes a revenge unlike anything you’ve seen in a horror film before.
The early ’80s were a wild and prolific time for the horror genre but Evilspeak easily stands out from the pack. Director/co-writer Eric Weston takes his time to build up the character of Stanley and his suffering but this approach works for a few reasons. The first is that the script effectively stacks the deck against poor Stanley with a rogue’s gallery of entertainingly nasty characters that are given lively performances. Stark leads this pack as the charismatically cruel Bubba but there are also colorful supporting turns by Cortese as the disdainful chaplain and Charles Tyner as the corporal punishment-loving Colonel who runs the school. Also, look out for R.G. Armstrong in an unforgettably sleazy performance as the alcoholic, perverted handyman who loves to menace poor Stanley. On the nicer side, it’s worth noting that Nelson is charming in a too-brief role as the one cadet who likes our hero.
However, the key to the build-up of the film is the character of Stanley. He’s written as a genuinely likeable misfit who is easy to root for and he gets a career-best performance from Howard. He uses his natural comic timing to start off the characterization in a funny-oddball mode but as the storyline piles on indignities, he weaves in anguish and isolation with a sincerity that might make viewers wince at his suffering. Best of all, he hits operatic heights when the script calls for him to go over the edge – and the result is one of horror’s great “avenging outcast” performances.
Finally, and most importantly, Evilspeak delivers the goods with distinctive, bizarrely imaginative flair when its second half kicks in. Weston creates some great “creative death” setpieces leading up to the finale, including the aforementioned shower scene, and then throws out all the stops for the finale. You’ll be bowled over by a barrage of sword-assisted decapitations, practical gore effects, explosions, computer-assisted optical FX and, of course, killer pigs. The cherry atop this slaughter sundae is provided by a killer orchestral/choral/electronic musical score that shamelessly but perfectly imitates Jerry Goldsmith’s work in the Omen series. To call this closing setpiece “one for the record books” would be an understatement. It’s one of the most bizarre, go-for-broke denouements you’ll see in any film, much less a horror film.
In short, the “worm turns” theme has gotten many memorable treatments from the horror genre but it never again got a workout as captivatingly outlandish as it receives in Evilspeak. If wild ’80s horror is your sweet spot, you need to see this movie.