Spielberg’s first television movie, 1971’s DUEL, was a big success—even going so far as to screen theatrically in European cinemas. Before he could go headlong into features however, there was still the matter of that little seven-year TV contract he signed for Universal. The very thing that had kickstarted his career now held him back from reaching new heights.
In 1972, Spielberg once again tackled a Movie Of The Week, this time for CBS. Capitalizing on a surge of fascination with demonic possession and exorcism brought about by the publication of the infamous novel by William Peter Blatty (I’m talking about “The Exorcist” of course), Spielberg and CBS embarked on a little horror tale called SOMETHING EVIL.
SOMETHING EVIL is pretty standard as far as horror films goes. An idyllic, nuclear American family (and almost always white) moves into their dream home in the country—in this incarnation, rural Pennsylvania. Soon enough, the wife begins hearing strange sounds at night, and before she knows it, she’s caught in the grip of a horrific demonic possession. In SOMETHING EVIL’s case, the possessed is the family’s young son, and the mother must fight to save her little boy from Satan himself.
The film stars Darren McGavin and Sandy Dennis as Paul and Marjorie Worden, respectively. McGavin is the father who reluctantly leaves their home in NYC for Dennis’ impulsive plea to buy a country house two hours away. As he is frequently away on business for his high-powered career in advertising, Marjorie is usually alone in the house with the children. The performances of SOMETHING EVIL are not really noteworthy. Uninspired at best. Dennis’s shrill Mid-Atlantic accent is grating on the ears, and I found her overall character to be really irritating. The usage of such stock tropes, even in the fledgling days of demonic horror stories, points to writer Robert Clouse’s utter disinterest in crafting a television experience that aspired to anything higher than its station.
SOMETHING EVIL could be considered Spielberg’s first (and only?) dabbling in the horror genre, except it’s really more of a melodrama than an outright scary story. It doesn’t boast a conventionally moody aesthetic, instead opting for a straightforward, unadorned visual presentation by cinematographer Bill Butler. Unimaginative, sedate camerawork counters Spielberg’s reputation for inspired compositions and moves, save for a few evocative frames seen from a low angle. Despite the success of DUEL before it, SOMETHING EVIL has never been released publicly, so it’s hard to discern whether it looks any good or not. The only version of the film that seems to be available is a badly-worn VHS dub loaded onto Youtube, which washes everything out into a smear of green and yellow.
As a horror story, SOMETHING EVIL is completely ineffective, save for one singular thing. Marjorie is woken up in the middle of the night several times by sounds of a baby crying. Naturally she gets up to find out what the sound is, and spooky-time commences. Nothing scary actually happens during these sequences, but that damn sound effect Spielberg uses is unnerving. When I have kids, if they cry like that at night, they’re on their own. Nope nope nope.
SOMETHING EVIL does contain a theme that runs throughout Spielberg’s body of work, that of the “absent father”. This theme is a reflection of Spielberg’s own difficult relationship with his father, and tends to manifest itself most strongly in stories with suburban, familial settings. In SOMETHING EVIL, it isn’t exactly a broken home, per se, but Paul and Marjorie do have their share of marital troubles—namely, his rational disbelief alienating his over-sensitive wife. A long commute and a successful career in the city takes him out of the story for long stretches at a time, leaving Marjorie to face the forces of evil alone. And in the end, it is only a mother’s touch that can save a young boy from possession.
All told, SOMETHING EVIL is probably the most lackluster thing Spielberg had done up to that point (at least from what I’ve seen). As an exercise in horror, it falls flat on its face—making me wonder if that’s why Spielberg has never really attempted a true horror film in his career. It’s not terrible, it’s just an uninspired hour of television that is as easily forgotten an hour later. It’s so generic that the writer couldn’t even be bothered to specify what the “evil” was that he was referring to in the title. SOMETHING EVIL is…. something bland.
SOMETHING EVIL is available in its entirety via the Youtube embed above.
Produced by: Alan Jay Factor
Written by: Robert Clouse
Director of Photography: Bill Butler
Production Designer: Albert Heschong
Editor: Allan Jacobs
Composer: Wladimir Selinsky