Monday, October 30, 2017

"Even If It's an Atrocity, It Won't Be an Eyesore" - The Evil Within (2017)

For Halloween this year, there is only one appropriate film to discuss, and that is the late Andrew Getty’s The Evil Within (2017), a film in which Chip from the 1980s sitcom Kate & Allie becomes a serial killer with Down’s syndrome. In fact, The Evil Within is one of only a handful of modern films that approaches the heights of 1970s and 1980s cinema, when classics like The Nightmare Never Ends (1980), Shriek of the Mutilated (1974), and The Visitor (1979) were being released every year.

Although some of your universe’s critics appreciate The Evil Within, appropriately, others are less perceptive. For example, on IMDB, reviewer missaliceandro writes, with minimal clarity, “Watch at your own risk. Why did this happen.” Reviewer bobsucre writes hyperbolically, “This film takes the cake for being one of, if not the worst I’ve ever come across. The acting is beyond deplorable. The dialogue is laughable.”

Needless to say, these critics are incorrect about The Evil Within, which I shall now explore in detail sufficient to show these misguided reviewers the error of their ways.

A film of this importance can only open with the main character narrating the themes of the film while surrealistic imagery marries actors and puppets to get across the feeling of a particularly dense dream. The narrator tells us that dreams, though they seem like stories, are not in fact stories because they do not make sense.

The film transitions to another, slightly more realistic, dream that is more like a story, though it too does not make sense. In the dream, the narrator, Dennis, is a boy visiting a carnival in the middle of a cracked and barren desert plain. The highlight of the carnival is the scariest haunted house in the world.

His mother takes Dennis on the ride, despite the warning given by a carny who is clearly famed genre icon Michael Berryman in a slightly comical blond wig.

Defying the audience’s expectations, the ride itself, shown in a single shot following the only car, is simply short and dark, with a few tombstones spray-painted onto black walls. Quite boring. Or is it?

Dennis intones, “A con game.”

His mother replies, “What makes you think the ride’s over? What makes you think it’s every going to end?”

(At this point, she takes off her sunglasses to reveal that her eyes are actually small copies of her mouth, for some unknown reason.)

Dennis says he had that dream when he was four, though in the dream he was around 10 years old.

The film then transitions into a third surreal dream, this one more of a nightmare, and one that also features the esteemed Michael Berryman. In perhaps the film’s most startling scene, Mr. Berryman sticks a zipper to the grown Dennis’s back, then unzips his skin, climbs inside, and zips himself back up.

After finding a dream-room in his house that doesn’t exist in waking life, Dennis, who now appears to be in his 30s, finds himself in reality, at a picnic with his older brother John and his brother’s girlfriend Lydia. He tells us, through narration, that his inner voice is considerably more sophisticated than his real voice, and we realize that he is actually developmentally disabled.

It is here, in the real world, that the film demonstrates its most clever feature and proves that it is not from your universe but from mine (which, like Dennis’s inner voice, is considerably more sophisticated than your primitive reality). It quickly becomes clear that The Evil Within’s reality does not follow your universe’s rules.

Dennis, John, and Lydia visit their favorite ice cream parlor, a minimalist and deserted place called Ice Cream Oasis whose slogan is “A Splash of Color in a Dreary World.” They are waited on by a woman in a bikini and no hair covering, a common occurrence, of course, in my universe, but in yours a situation which would violate any number of foolishly stringent health codes.

“Nice to see you,” Dennis says to the woman.

“Of course it’s nice to see me,” she replies. “I’m outlandishly hot.”

When they return to their mansion, John reveals that at some point in the past day he has replaced Dennis’s robots and comic books with some odd little statues of Jesus with needles emerging from his sides and, most ominously, a mirror that had appeared in one of Dennis’s nightmares. Dennis objects to having the giant mirror in his giant room, but he can’t argue with John’s logic in moving it there. “Dennis, look at the shape of this frame compared to the shape of the window. It’s the same kind of wood stained with the same kind of stain. It matches the character of the house perfectly. It even matches the motif of the furniture.”

Unable to argue against the airtight logic of the science of interior decorating, Dennis backs down. But John is not done; he has even further arguments related to where the mirror has been stored. “It wasn’t just locked up in a vault. If you surprised us all and proved yourself a safecracker, you still wouldn’t have found it. There’s a vault within a vault. A prohibition vault.”

“Then put the mirror in your room,” Dennis suggests, but his brother will have none of such tomfoolery.

After leaving Dennis in his room with the mirror, Dennis discovers that his reflection in the mirror can speak to him. It taunts him and begins to turn him against John.

Meanwhile, John and Lydia argue about what to do with Dennis, with Lydia arguing for institutionalization. John’s dramatic choice is highlighted again the next day when a social worker played by Kim Darby breaks into the mansion, accompanied by ominous music.

“How did you get past my gate?” asks John.

“Oh, please excuse my breach,” Ms. Darby says as she enters the house. “We got a tip on our hotline that you’ve been losing your temper around Dennis.”

Of course, John invites her into his mansion. Director Andrew Getty shows his mastery of cinematic form as he presents the expository scene with showy flourishes, such as having the scene take place in an exceptionally dark living room with the camera circling the actors and subtly fading from one shot to the next.

After John exhibits impatience and anger, he guesses what Ms. Darby (whose character name is Mildy) is up to. “Is this some sort of experiment? You want a reaction? You keep asking me if I have a temper. You’re going to find one.” (Of course, ironically, he has already demonstrated his temper.)

“Well, you’re not dumb, I’ll give you that,” says Ms. Darby.

John replies, somewhat confusingly, “Your lab is contaminating your experiment. You’re completely prejudiced. I am angry. How can the state split up my family?”

When Ms. Darby explains that children can be taken away from abusive parents based on a small amount of evidence, he attacks the validity of such a law.

Of course, John’s next step is to make an appointment with his psychiatrist, a man who counsels John from behind a desk on which sits a model of a bisected head with exposed brain that can only be described as anxiety-inducing.

John makes plain his dilemma again, but this time he says he wants to institutionalize Dennis in a private facility, not a state hospital. Without explaining why he does not follow through on this choice, John changes his mind: “He’s my responsibility. I can’t dump him in someone else’s lap. I owe him. No one else can pay my debt.”

The film then cuts to a restaurant, though the restaurant is clearly someone’s back yard, which I am told is uncommon in your universe. John meets Lydia at the backyard restaurant for another argument. Lydia accuses John of not wanting to marry her and using his responsibility for Dennis as his excuse.

Meanwhile, for unexplained reasons, Dennis is lying on the floor in his bedroom and holding up the big full-length mirror above his head so he can converse awkwardly with his mirror-self.

Writer/director Getty shows his mastery of relationships with the incisive dialogue traded by John and Lydia as they walk home (or actually around the side of the house from the backyard to the front door). “Come on,” Lydia says, “It wasn’t even that big of a fight. That was just a discussion.”

“I never could tell the difference between fights and discussions,” says John. “I was always surprised as to which was which.”

“Well, you could ask me which it is as we’re going,” she replies.

“So which is this?” he asks.

“What we’re doing right now? This is foreplay.”

After Dennis retreats to his room at night, he finds his bedroom transformed into a mirror maze. Unlike most mirror mazes, however, this one features Michael Berryman’s nameless demon biting off his own fingertips.

After Dennis wakes up and finds John inexplicably getting dressed in Dennis’s bedroom, Dennis explains the film’s premise. “A dream is a story I tell myself, right? I tell my self a story. One part of my brain tells another part of my brain a story. Well, if it’s a story I tell me, how can I trick myself? You can’t tell yourself a joke and not see the punchline coming.” Dennis believes his dreams are coming from someone else — in fact, the Michael Berryman demon.

Dennis then hits on a way to improve his brain and become smart. Reasoning that everyone else is making up rules to see if he is dumb enough to believe and follow them, he of courses realizes that he can discover the “real rules” by killing a cat. He tells himself, “If you kill a cat, you can prove that you know which rules are fake. And they’ll all know you’re becoming smarter.”

Following this foolproof logic, Dennis immediately kills his neighbor’s cat with a pair of scissors akin to the deadly barber scissors featured in The Boogeyman.

 The film is so well-paced, in fact, that Dennis kills several cats and dogs in the same day, hiding them in an ice chest. His mirror image has ordered a DVD with instructions on taxidermy, and as Dennis picks up a dead dog the mirror-Dennis tells him, “You’re holding a new paint brush, Dennis.”

The next night, Lydia and John go to their outdoor restaurant (i.e., they walk around the house to the backyard). John admits that he is getting suspicious about Dennis’s newfound interest in carpentry. “The fact that he’s doing something skillfully is exciting, but it’s also kinda scary.” He adds about whatever Dennis might be building, “Even if it’s an atrocity, it won’t be an eyesore because it’s down in the basement.”

John then proceeds to put a jewelry box on the table, but instead of a wedding ring the box hides some earrings. John does not understand why Lydia is suddenly upset, so she explains her feelings to him: “We were talking about marriage. Children. Earrings?”

Skillfully echoing the narrative’s clear perspective that Lydia is being unreasonable to John, the TV hanging from a staircase nearby shows a documentary about spiders. The TV narrator intones, “Spiders are not social animals. They have no families. If the spider’s gene is to last into the next generation, he must approach the female by stealth, careful not to be seen by her because spiders are cannibals, and females are much larger than males.”

Lydia lands her final verbal blow against John: “When I said I wanted a baby, I meant the small kind, the cute kind. Not the 30-year-old masturbating kind.”

The narrator on TV reminds us, presumably about spiders, that “to the female, the male is merely food.”

Of course, Dennis, watching the same program at home, is attacked in his dream by a giant spider.

Furthermore, the mirror-Dennis tells him that to stop the dreams, he needs to kill a child. This is justified, says the mirror-demon, because Dennis has been served children at dinnertime many times, so it’s no big deal.

So he kills a little boy.

The next step is to go after Susan, the ice cream seller with the questionable understanding of food safety codes.

Dennis stalks and kills Susan by somehow leaping out of a cabinet, leaping up to the ceiling, and then chasing her into the street, where she is hit by both a car and a bus.

Elsewhere, John is at his favorite backyard restaurant yet again. He is meeting his psychiatrist for lunch and psychoanalysis, and he does not realize that both Lydia and Kim Darby’s Mildy character are also at the restaurant. John does meet Lydia when he sees her standing at a valet parking sign, though she clearly has no car and is simply standing casually next to the valet. John offers Lydia a ride away from the backyard, so they take his BMW through town, back to John’s house.

They offer to take Dennis out on the town, so they take him to his favorite restaurant, despite having finished lunch minutes earlier. Dennis’s favorite restaurant is an establishment similar to your universe’s Chuck E. Cheese’s, though with a nautical theme.

The centerpiece of this scene is a spectacular animatronic band.

Dennis asks how they make the octopus’s tentacles move, so John explains without hesitation: “See the wires attached to the tentacles? Well, they go up past the curtain where we can’t see them, into a big plastic tube with a bunch of disks on it. It’s not too unlike a giant shish kabob skewer, put through old vinyl records. But it doesn’t actually go through the center, it’s a little off center so when it rotates the disk goes up and down and subsequently the arms attached to that disk go up and down as well, moving cables, which move the tentacles.”

(Sean Patrick Flannery’s performance here is truly a monologue for the ages, not to mention a brilliant treatise on animatronics.)

After Dennis casually murders someone in a bathroom stall, he meets his mirror image again, who informs him he is now addicted to murder. “Stop killing and sobriety’s icy hand will have you,” warns the mirror-Dennis.

Despite the fact that he is having nightmarish visions even when he is awake, Dennis decides he must stay awake to avoid the demon. This appears to be successful at first, but soon we realize that the nightmares have invaded the real world. John and Lydia go about their normal day—which involves stopping at the ice cream parlor for coffee—but they feel they are in a waking dream.

John thinks he recognizes his psychiatrist, but it turns out to be an exceptionally tall man with a bad attitude. Later, John and Lydia encounter a friend in a sequence that can only be described as confounding to those who are used to experiencing traditional narratives and dialogue, a sequence which contains the immortal line, “Parting of the Red Sea was okay, but I was not a believer until I witnessed the bookstore fuckup.”

Meanwhile, Mildy breaks into John’s house with two bumbling uniformed cops, one of whom says, apropos of absolutely nothing, “Turkey, chicken, roast beef, it all takes a day.”

Mirror-Dennis inexplicably switches places with the real Dennis so he can murder the bumbling cops and Mildy.

In the climactic act, mirror-Dennis murders Lydia using a knife, an electric drill, and a fire extinguisher (as killers are wont to do). John arrives too late, and is glued to a chair and forced to watch mirror-Dennis’s stage performance. The performance includes not only ventriloquism with Lydia’s corpse, but also an impressive show of stop-motion animation featuring doctors, carnival barkers, and a giant spider with a human head.

In the finale, which echoes Psycho, Dennis sits in a padded cell with two mirrors reflecting alternate Dennises, on and on, into infinity.

As chronicled by Alex Ritman in The Hollywood Reporter and Charles Bramesco in The Guardian, The Evil Within (originally titled The Storyteller) was a passion project by Andrew Getty, the Getty Oil heir, that took 13 years to complete, and was released more than a year after its auteur’s death at age 47. Mr. Getty began shooting the film, which is based on his own nightmares, in 2002. He financed it with between $4 million and $6 million of his own fortune, and he worked on the film between 2002 and 2015, building his own special effects technologies and camera rigs. His work on the film was only stopped by his death in 2015 due to methamphetamine usage.

While a near-masterpiece in its own right, The Evil Within has something else going for it for the citizens of your universe: In many ways, it is a realistic peek into the workings of my particular universe. Unlike Cathy’s Curse (1977), a film from some other unknown universe, I recognize many aspects of The Evil Within’s world as the normal, everyday aspects of my Universe-Prime. For example, like Susan the ice cream lady, most outlandishly hot women in my universe are prone to sprinkling the phrase “I’m outlandishly hot” into nearly every conversation. Similarly, the age-old homily “Stinking in the basement is okay if you’re reading the right books” is a popular saying in my universe, and John makes proper use of it in the film. Finally, in my universe, as in The Evil Within, it is not uncommon to explain, upon finding DVDs (referred to verbally as cassettes), that “someone went shopping for these and placed them in a bag.” What else would one say?

But The Evil Within is not a work of genius solely because of its director’s persistent vision or because of its look into a universe much better than your own. No, The Evil Within is exceptional because of the performance of the young (at the time of the film’s commencement) to near-middle aged (at the time of the film’s release) Frederick Koehler. His performance as the brain-damaged Dennis and the less-brain-damaged mirror-Dennis can only be described as committed, as it is unrestrained by the limits of sympathy or good taste. Mr. Koehler’s belief in the reality of Dennis makes it impossible for us in the audience to experience any hint of disbelief. The singular performance is made all the more riveting by the clear disinterest shown in the performances of former Powder and Indiana Jones Sean Patrick Flanery as John, and of former Dizzy Flores (perhaps the inspiration for the name Mildy Torres in this film) Dina Meyer as Lydia. Indeed, Mr. Koehler’s performance, like the film itself, is one for the ages.

A true successor to films like The Nightmare Never Ends (1980), Blood and Lace (1971), and The Demon (1981), The Evil Within is the perfect film for the Halloween of 2017.