Vision Films has a lot of movies in its catalogue, but you probably haven’t heard of any of them. Among them: low-budget ripoffs, lower-budget genre fare, bottom-feeding family entertainment, and the oeuvre of faith-based director Rich Christiano. They’re the kinds of films your eyes skim over on Netflix - the very definition of blandness. Andrew Getty’s magnum opus The Evil Within, then, is an outlier in the Vision catalogue, deserving of many adjectives but definitely not “bland.”
Sporting the most crucial element of trash auteurship - an idiosyncratic and misanthropic worldview - The Evil Within is a jaw-dropping viewing experience. Writer/director Getty, a reclusive millionaire oil heir, put the film together over a dozen years, with an impressively credits-lengthening crew turnover, before dying of intestinal issues likely caused by methamphetamine abuse, just before its completion. The resultant film suits its backstory. Its screenplay, lead performance, and even visual design feel like we’re peering through hole in Getty’s skull as he hides in his mansion and slowly kills himself with meth.
After a bleak opening montage built from music-video nightmare imagery and an unintentionally comedic voiceover, The Evil Within starts revealing innumerable layers of wrongheaded weirdness. An imposing mirror is installed in mentally challenged protagonist Dennis’ bedroom against his will, and soon enough a Dennis doppelganger appears within, claiming to represent his inner self and urging him to commit escalating acts of murder. Poor, tortured Dennis can’t help but oblige, turning his victims into a strange basement contraption to further his reflection’s master plan. By now, a wide assortment of warning bells should be going off: this movie is #problematic as fuck. But its depiction of the mentally handicapped is only the start of its captivating wrongness.
Shot in 2002 on actual celluloid, largely in Getty’s own house, The Evil Within is crafted far more elaborately than one would expect. Eschewing digital effects, the film’s creatures and makeup effects are not just practical but in many cases created by the director himself - Getty obsessively built his own animatronics, puppets, and Habitrail labyrinths. Their handcrafted texture certainly supports that - as does a scene wherein the characters lovingly explain the mechanisms that make animatronics work. There are some genuinely cool horror moments in here, including one memorable and inexplicable gore gag involving a power drill and a fire extinguisher. Andrew Getty did not, at least, lack imagination.
As with films of this type, though, the morbid appeal lies not in the imagery, but the ideas.
Despite being self-funded by its millionaire director, practically speaking The Evil Within is the opposite of a vanity piece, with Getty emerging looking worse than had he not made a movie. It’s indulgent as hell, yes, but saying nothing positive. There’s a deep hatred of people using “big fifty-cent words;” of one’s self; of everyone, basically, presented with the bloody-minded intensity of a Killing Spree or Love Butcher. When the dark side finally wins - proclaiming that Dennis, brandishing a frozen dog corpse, is “holding a new paintbrush” - Getty might as well be talking about himself.
At first I didn’t dig The Evil Within’s slow pace, but it grew on me. The burn may be slow, but it’s deep - an unravelling, like a chillout session with a terrible and unhinged friend. Scenes between Dennis and his alter ego evoke Yabo Yablonsky’s crazed 1971 Mickey Rooney vehicle The Manipulator, wherein Rooney’s character ceaselessly berates Luana Anders and, effectively, the audience. Dennis painstakingly talks himself through the moral leaps required to turn himself into a serial killer, his simplistic logic starting to make bizarre sense simply thanks to how hard it’s drummed into the audience. “They left you meat as a clue,” mirror-Dennis states seemingly five hundred times. Immerse yourself in The Evil Within, and you might emerge thinking everyone does kill little boys and girls all the time, and they really do think you’re stupid for not joining in.
The unsettling dialogue is made all the more so by the spectacularly ill-advised (but not “bad”) lead performance by Frederick Koehler. Koehler, a doughy Wil Wheaton-looking motherfucker recently seen in season six of American Horror Story, plays both the mentally handicapped Dennis and his creepier, more articulate alter ego, and more or less hits what he’s aiming for. The wildly offensive nature of the character aside, Koehler’s performance is focused and emotional in every way that co-stars Sean Patrick Flanery and Dina Meyer are not. Like the film, Koehler is completely earnest, channeling Getty’s clear affinity for the strange and broken (see also: the film’s inclusion of legendary unusual-looking character actors Michael Berryman and the late Matthew McGrory).
Getty’s dialogue reveals strange attitudes even to basic ideas. Characters refer casually to concepts several steps removed from reality, not even limited to the film’s central conceit. Dennis’ brother John - Sean Patrick Flanery and an A-grade asshole - lives in a world where everyone has one consistent waiter, valet, “ice cream girl,” and “bookstore guy,” and where the absence of any one of them is grounds for panic. Where an interest in forensics is more worrisome than one in butchery and taxidermy. Where dressing up like a carpenter makes one professionally qualified in that field. Where “crack and gasoline” is a regular thing to do at night, and where interior decoration matters more than the law, morality, or simple decency. There’s also plenty of anti-woman sentiment - because of course there fucking is - including the assertion that serial killers get women “wet between the legs.” All this stuff is taken as read; no attempt is made to justify it because apparently, it’s all self-evident.
By the time the movie reaches its deranged, theatrical conclusion, new revelations turn what was a somewhat straightforward serial killer narrative into an ultra-specific revenge story, centring around the elimination of familiar faces from Dennis’ brother’s life. At this point, there are so many issues swirling around that it’s difficult to parse what the film is “about” other than buried rage. There's nothing left to do other than proceed to an ending that appears to pray for death.
The Evil Within is a stream-of-consciousness nightmare that would never have existed were it not for the confluence of money, mental illness, and fanatical devotion to vision. Like last year’s Polish possession drama and Holocaust metaphor Demon, it’s hard to watch without reading the director’s psychological state and subsequent death into it. Knowing Getty slaved away at a cinematic interpretation of his own dreams for over a decade, maintaining a revolving door of crew like a directorial H.H. Holmes, only heightens the viewing experience. For better or worse, it’s a movie nobody else in the world could have made.
"We have to fix our brain," Dennis stresses frequently. For Andrew Getty, that seems to have been an impossible dream. Or a nightmare.