The tradition of DIY filmmaking is unified by a single element: delivery of the unfiltered vision of the pictures’ creators. Duke Mitchell attempted to present an unconstrained street level POV of what it meant to be an Italian-American during the '70s in Massacre Mafia Style and Gone With the Pope. Craig Denney let us peek behind a curtain of megalomania that would cause Charles Foster Kane to blush with The Astrologer. Neil Breen feels like he’s transmitting alien diary entries back to the mothership every time he steps behind the camera. However, with these autonomous artistic outputs comes the byproduct of worldviews that are usually archaic and/or anarchic. There’s no possible way that they align with your own perception of the reality in which we live, let alone a modern sense of what is socially acceptable. Yet that’s what makes these movies so special, as they’re innately confrontational not only in delivery, but from inception alone.
So, it makes sense that The Evil Within – reclusive meth’d-out oil heir Andrew Getty’s decade-in-the-making, self-financed trip into the mind of a mentally challenged serial murderer – is as squeamishly empathetic as it is. We’re introduced to our anti-hero, Dennis (Frederick Koehler), via his “inner voice”: a hyper-articulate raconteur who lets us know his dreams are haunted houses he can’t wake up from, due to him being a “retard”. For everyone else, Dennis is Simple Jack; crushing on a pretty ice-cream parlor girl (Brianna Brown) while his brother, John (Sean Patrick Flanery), and his girlfriend, Lydia (Dina Meyer), try to figure out what they’re going to do with the slow sailor. John doesn’t want to institutionalize Dennis, and harbors an abnormal amount of guilt regarding his brother’s condition. But Lydia is tired of the “thirty-year-old baby”, and warns that her beau’s kin needs to move out of John’s lavishly large home soon, or risk losing her altogether. John inexplicably imports a large, wooden mirror into Dennis’ bedchamber, resulting in his brother meeting his “inner self”, who promptly commands him to commit gruesome murder in order to escape his own head. It’s a diseased attempt at psychologically analyzing the cerebrally handicapped, resulting in one of the more grotesque slasher backstories in horror history.
Let’s talk about the word “retard” for a second. This is the way Dennis both refers to himself, and is referred to by “friends” and strangers alike. Add in a mix of colorful descriptors like “mongoloid”, and you get a pretty good idea at the sensitivity level Getty is applying to this examination of his lead’s disability (and Koehler’s slobbering, chest-thumping histrionics certainly don’t help matters). This is where the presumed intent of Getty’s movie clashes with his rather archaic artistic worldview. Every utterance of the horrible insult is injected with an acidic tone that practically melts your TV screen. It’s as if Getty instructed Koehler (along with the rest of his cast) to modulate when using the slur the same way a Jim Crow-era racist would whenever they slung an epithet at a black kid trying to sit at their lunch counter. It’s despicable.
Getty’s script is so frequently peppered with these types of insults that it’d possibly cause Quentin Tarantino to reflect upon the amount of times he used “nigger” in Django Unchained. So, when Dennis decides to confront John by screaming (apropos of nothing really) “I’m not a retard” from atop their home’s massive staircase, or Evil Dennis offers up the degrading “she’d never fuck a retard” when his external shell is questioning whether to approach his love, it’s hard not to laugh at the tin-eared ludicrousness of it all. Adding injury to these insults is the fact that the latter scolding is followed with the crude gem “she wouldn’t fuck you with someone else’s pussy”, clueing you into the depth of understanding Getty injected into this gutter tome. The word is awful, we know it’s awful, we think Getty knows it’s awful, but the multi-hyphenate’s utter lack of tact is uproariously funny. Schlock hounds stumbling upon The Evil Within as some sort of VOD time-filler on a Wednesday night are in for one hell of a shock.
What’s not debatable is Getty’s application of nightmare imagery. This is where The Evil Within comes across as the genuine output of someone in the throes of drug addiction. Dennis’ mind mirrors the prison Getty’s mansion (in which most of The Evil Within was filmed, on celluloid, during 2002) became while he ingested copious amounts of methamphetamine, resulting in reported agoraphobia and eventually life-ending intestinal failure*. The grey, hairless demon that haunts Dennis’ dreams (portrayed by The Hills Have Eyes’ Michael Berryman, under layers of prosthetics) is legitimately unnerving, as are the numerous stop-motion animated SFX that feel fit for a lost Tool video. Getty apparently hand-crafted many of the movie’s animatronics, makeup effects and labyrinth corridors (one sequence involving an Enter the Dragon-esque mirror dungeon is especially impressive). This is the work of someone who was obviously in love with the craft of making movies, but didn’t have the formal training to execute his vision in any sort of traditional sense. When combined with the skewed visual language and flat “New Line Cinema during the '90s” cinematographic aesthetic, what results is the intensely personal vision of a horror nerd with too much money at his disposal and a rush of speed barreling through his bloodstream.
To be frank, Dennis’ narrative doesn’t feel too far removed from something like Rob Zombie’s Halloween, as Getty attempts to empathize with a monster who begins his homicidal career with animals and ends with his own family members. The Evil Within’s finale is a near-perfectly simmered pot of nightmare stew, as we finally discover just why the hell Dennis has been consuming all those audiobooks about forensic investigation and taxidermy. Getty’s only feature film will never be explained thanks to his death, so we’ll never be able to ask why a final reel reveal regarding Dennis’ disability was inserted, somewhat upending the entirety of the storyline up to that point. Nor will we be able to discuss the numerous technical flubs (like a moment where Dennis converses with his dark side in a bathroom mirror and we can clearly see the actor mouthing both parts thanks to the angles chosen), or why the accidental auteur didn’t finance another set of reshoots to try and fix any of these inconsistencies. But that’s another one of the joys of delving into the realm of DIY oddities as, were he still alive, there’s no guarantee Getty would be able to offer up a cogent response (have you ever read an interview with Neil Breen? It’s nonsense). Instead, we should just accept The Evil Within as the electric current of outsider art it truly is: representative of a contaminated brain we may not want to get to know beyond the bizarre genre art it produced.