Gus Trikonis’ The Evil is an unusual film. For most of its running time, it’s a pretty unremarkable haunted house movie in the mold of the Haunting, and it’s really only notable because it came out a year before the Amityville Horror, which does some of the same things much better (this film feels like it should be a knock off of that one, despite being made first), and several months before Halloween, as this has a kind of stalk-and-slash vibe (though it’s a house doing the slashings and not a dude). So, despite behind a little ahead of the curve, the first 70 minutes or so of this film has Richard Crenna (with a beard that, again, makes me feel like it should be a ripoff of James Brolin’s look in Amityville Horror, but still isn’t. He also looks almost exactly like Bryan Cranston in the last season of Breaking Bad, almost uncannily so) and his boring friends trying to fix up the dumb old haunted house they bought and interrupting long stretches of not much happening with getting killed by ghosts, or whatever.
It might be somewhat instructive to compare The Evil to a film that feels somewhat structurally similar, but achieves a lot more- Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, which was released a couple of years after this. Both films feature a string of deaths related to a passageway to hell in an old house, and both lead to a sort of metaphysical journey for their protagonists at the end, an unwitting crossing over of mystical boundaries. The Evil is very much like the beyond blanched of all style and atmosphere, if you can imagine the drowsy pacing of a Fulci film without any of that filmmaker’s distinctive distinctiveness- the over-the-top gore, the lush atmospherics, the dreamlike tangents or the general feelings of otherworldliness and dread that Fulci brings to films that are not especially narratively developed.
It would be easy to write off The Evil completely as not much more than an adequate time killer for a rainy Sunday afternoon were it not for the film’s ending, in which Crenna discovers the portal to hell in his basement and follows it to an encounter with the (or at least a) devil, played the great Victor Buono. If ever there was an actor to play a droll, world-weary devil, it’s Buono, best known for his role in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and as King Tut on the 60’s Batman tv show. Much as in The Beyond, hell here is a white, misty wasteland, and Buono’s devil (listed in the credits as simply Devil) sits in a white throne, wearing an all white suit. The scene is so strange and fun and comes so out of left field in what’s an otherwise fairly dull film, it makes it almost worth recommending, though in some ways it paints the rest of the movie in an even more disappointing light, knowing that there was a kernel of mostly untapped creativity that existed in the film’s conception but wasn’t applied to the project as a whole.