A pitiless Midnight Madness title about demonic possession, the pressing questions going into a film like IFC’s When Evil Lurks really boil down to “just how depraved is it?” and “how extreme is the gore and violence?” The answer to both: exceedingly. Playing like a less claustrophobic, more anguished take on The Evil Dead, Demián Rugna’s film treats evil less as a self-contained entity that attaches itself to a single living creature or place and rather as an invisible, highly contagious force that passes from person to person, transforming anywhere and anytime into a potential venue for death and despair (it’s entirely possible to read the film as a commentary on Covid). However, the lack of guardrails inherent in the premise becomes something of a double-edged sword; it creates a framework where even the most serene of scenes can descend into madness with little prior warning, but it also announces from the outset that this is a fundamentally unescapable scenario and that evil will pursue our characters to the ends of the earth. It’s hard to abandon all hope when there’s really none to begin with.
Opening in the countryside of Argentina, grown brothers Pedro (Ezequiel Rodríguez) and Jimmy (Demián Salomón) are startled one evening when they hear gunfire in the distance. Setting off the next morning to investigate, they find a disembodied corpse in the woods alongside vaguely occultish instruments. The two brothers work their way back to a small house belonging to laborers living on the land where they discover an even more horrifying scene: the residents are harboring a man who they claim is possessed by an evil spirit. The man, his body swollen as if it’s been submerged in water for months and covered with dripping pustules, gurgles “kill me” with a malevolent glimmer in his eye. It’s believed that the only way to release this man from the evil that has overtaken him is to have him treated and ultimately euthanized by a “cleaner,” essentially a state-sanctioned exorcist, who should be along momentarily (you might be able to guess who the corpse in the woods was). They also say that anything short of going through this process, including killing the afflicted man before his soul is cleansed, will only unleash greater evil into the world. Pedro and Jimmy take this news to their employer, a local land baron (Luis Ziembrowski) who, after electing not to shotgun the possessed man to death, settles on a novel solution: the three men will simply bundle up the afflicted (often referred to in the film as “the rotten”) in some blankets, stick him in the flatbed of their truck, drive a few hundred kilometers away, and dump his technically still-living form into someone else’s backyard. Problem solved, right?
It should be acknowledged that there is no road map for surviving a demonic possession, but the characters in When Evil Lurks offer a pretty unimpeachable argument for what not to do should one find themselves in this situation. We learn that Pedro is estranged from his family, with his ex-wife Sabrina (Virginia Garófalo) having taken his two sons to live closer to the city and started a new family with a new husband. We also learn that this evil attaches itself like a parasite to anyone who comes into direct contact with it. So, of course, Pedro and Jimmy plan to hit the road to evade this demonic force and decide to gather up Pedro’s children, one a small boy and the other a teenager so afflicted by autism that he’s both non-verbal and barely ambulatory, as well as their elderly mother, Sara (Paula Rubinsztein), for the ride. And naturally, they’re astonished anew every time death, grievous bodily harm, and possession are visited upon those nearest and dearest to them, as though this all couldn’t have been prevented at nearly every turn. The film twists the viewer’s empathy, almost to the point of fomenting resentment toward personal attachments and even the vulnerable themselves, as they introduce so many logistical complications on top of the whole being pursued by an unkillable evil. It very well could be a concerted choice by the filmmakers, focusing on a pigheaded individual ignoring common sense and clinging to the outdated notion of riding out a traumatizing event with family when isolating in place likely would have kept their loved ones safe — again, it really feels like what’s lurking about is a pandemic metaphor — but at a certain point it becomes fair to ask whether these characters are simply too stupid to live. Time and again they’re guided by poor impulse control and their immediate fears and wants, ignoring stern warnings from those in the know as well as basic common sense to either bring about expedient results or simply to scratch a vengeance itch. Iffy decision-making is as inseparable from the horror genre as jump scares and thinly disguised conservatism, but all the same, in execution here it diminishes some of the “can you top this?” depravity when characters seem to be leading themselves to the slaughter.
But why bury the lede or brush past what the film genuinely excels at: namely, devising a series of splattery set pieces designed to elicit yelps and uncomfortable squirms. Rugna takes a certain amount of glee in barreling past the line of good taste, yet the film plays the suffering and heady notions of spirituality and the existence of evil with absolute sincerity, which lends a certain welcome edge. The respective age, adorability, or presumed helplessness of a character will not stand in the way of having their skulls split in half and the goop inside scooped out by the handful like Winnie the Pooh emptying a jar of honey. Digital VFX long ago got to the point where films like this no longer need to cut away to inserts of dummies packed with fake blood and viscera, and that allows Rugna to play the most truly horrifying bits in unbroken takes or wide shots, steadily ratcheting up tension only to have scenes explode in easily anticipated but still nearly photorealistic graphic violence — to wit, the number of times the film calls attention to the enormous family dog silently observing a heated domestic dispute while two small children absentmindedly pet it; even knowing invariably where the scene is going does nothing to lessen the shock of it. When Evil Lurks argues that its titular force feeds off of fear, attachments to loved ones, and the pervasive sense that all is lost, which is also a fair way of describing the movie itself. It announces itself as serving up a “bad time” almost from the opening moments, and viewers primed for that sort of experience will get what they came for. It’s only a question of whether you’ll be hiding your eyes or if your face is already in the palm of your hand.
DIRECTOR: Demián Rugna; CAST: Ezequiel Rodríguez, Demián Salomon, Silvina Sabater, Paula Rubinsztein; DISTRIBUTOR: IFC Films; IN THEATERS: October 6; STREAMING: October 27; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 39 min.