Haunted house movies are always a smart bet for low budget filmmakers. They need not have tricky opticals or a huge budget to make one: all it takes is a good narrative hook, some convincing actors, a convincing location and the do-it-yourself knack to pull off a few homespun special effects. The only real limit is the talent of the participants.
The filmmakers behind The Evil clearly took the above concepts to heart. This 1978 low-budget horror film tells the tale of a group of people who unwittingly choose a haunted house when searching out a suitable location to start a rehab clinic. Psychologist C.J. Arnold (Richard Crenna) and his wife Dr. Caroline Arnold (Joanna Pettet) pick the house out. Their science professor friend Raymond (Andrew Prine) meets them at their new location to help fix it, along with a group of past patients and friends that include familiar t.v. faces like Lynne Moody and Cassie Yates.
However, troubling things begin to happen once the group settles in to work. A pet dog suddenly turns vicious and Caroline sees a hazy white apparition that guides her toward an ages-old diary that has a coded warning about the house’s dark secrets. When the house claims a casualty, the group tries to leave – only to discover that the house has locked them in. They struggle to find a way out using rational methods as the house’s entity picks away at their ranks. The survivors ultimately realize that their enemy must be fought with methods beyond the realms of science and reason.
The results aren’t the most unique or original variant on the haunted house subgenre – but they are undeniably effective. Donald Thompson’s script is a no-nonsense affair that gets everyone in the haunted house and gets the scares rolling with speed while also giving the characterizations enough dimension for the audience to get invested. C.J. is the requisite ‘doubting Thomas’ who struggles to be rational while Caroline is his open-minded opposite, creating an interesting tension to support the main narrative. Raymond adds another shading to the storyline with his attempts to use science to combat the house’s unseen forces.
However, an even bigger part of making a haunted house flick work is having skilled actors who can sell the audience on the scares. The Evil comes up aces in this department thanks to a well-chosen cast: the always-solid Crenna convincingly summons up the intellectual weight and forceful personality necessary to make C.J. convincing while the willowy, ethereal Pettet is an ideal choice for the member of the group who “feels” the spirits. Prine is amusingly cocky in the early stages of the film before suffering a slide into ghost-induced madness that he pulls off with a pro’s skill. There’s also a memorable turn by the actor who portrays the titular force but viewers should discover that surprise for themselves.
Finally, The Evil benefits from vigorous direction by Gus Trikonis. This future t.v. director built his reputation on a string of energetic, well-directed b-movies during the 1970’s and The Evil is perhaps his best. He effectively deploys Mario DiLeo’s stylish camerawork and an appropriately creepy/bombastic score by Johnny Harris to create a good, old-fashioned “blood and thunder” atmosphere guaranteed to pull fans of vintage horror right in. The effects can be bit rough around the edges at times (particularly the ones that require an optical component, like an electrocution) but the combination of strong performances and savvy direction gets the viewer past such bumpy spots.
Trikonis is also smart enough to know that the audience needs a handful of shocks to keep them focused on the story so he works up some memorable setpieces along the way, like Moody being thrown around the room by an unseen attacker that tears away at her clothes and a spooky scene where Pettet discovers her companions are possessed and enacting some unholy ritual over the body of one of the dead. The fact that Trikonis makes these scenes work with only rudimentary special effects makes his work all the more impressive.
To sum up, The Evil is a solid addition to the haunted house subgenre and a nice object lesson in how filmmaking and acting skills are the best special effects.