Air Date: Jan. 21, 1972 (CBS)
Production Companies: Belford Productions, CBS Entertainment Production
Running Time: 73 min.
Available on: YouTube
Written by: Robert Clouse
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Sandy Dennis, Darren McGavin, Ralph Bellamy, Jeff Corey, Johnny Whitaker, John Rubinstein
Arriving immediately after Duel (1971), you have to be at least a little disappointed in Steven Spielberg’s next-to-last TV movie, Something Evil (1972.) However, a comparison of the two provides a good example of how a minimalist approach can work perfectly for one movie and not so perfectly for another. As you’ll read, I don’t blame Spielberg. It’s the script by Robert Clouse that’s problematic.
The plot of Duel couldn’t be simpler: man relentlessly pursued on highway by crazed trucker. It doesn’t need anything else. In fact, it doesn’t matter why the trucker is doing it. That’s one point that made the movie so compelling. With Something Evil, we don’t necessarily need an explanation, but we do need evidence of the threat. Other than Marjorie Worden (Sandy Dennis) hearing crying in the shed, nothing bad really happens.
She buys heavily into the symbol of protection painted on the barn, and dives deep into the books of spells that neighbor Harry Lincoln (Ralph Bellamy) shares; but, from what does she need protection? Why does she need to cast spells? Without seeing overt threats, we’re inclined to believe Marjorie is obsessed, if not a little crazy. Dennis is perfect for the role; she’s an unusual actress who always seems like something is haunting her.
Yes, there’s a lot of talk about a demon being in the house and how it might possess someone. Again, though, where is the evidence that this is actually happening? You might argue that this makes Something Evil different from almost every other movie of the kind. Its audience knows the tropes, so why deliver them? I’d respond that they’re tropes for a reason and they have to be there for the movie to succeed.
We all have to get a start somewhere. We know where Spielberg would go from this. Writer Robert Clouse took a different path. He found his success a year later by directing Enter the Dragon (1973), then The Ultimate Warrior (1975), and Game of Death (1978). (He also wrote two of the three.) Spielberg had his shark; Clouse had his Bruce Lee. Perhaps the two just didn’t mix well in a 1970s TV horror movie.
Spielberg directs the heck out of it, though. It’s full of interesting set-ups, from shots of two people, one close to the camera, one distant, to scenes where the camera moves through a crowded (and loud) house party. Something Evil doesn’t look or feel like others that have come before it. However, unlike Duel, there’s no suspense. Without a little substance behind the show, it’s all just an illusion.