The Unsafe Auteurism Of THE EVIL WITHIN
There’s a moment late in The Evil Within in which its special-needs protagonist (Fred Kohler) proudly presents a dead dog to the demon in the mirror who's commanding him to kill. The demon tells our hero, “you’re holding a new paintbrush now, Dennis.” That’s a pretty tidy snapshot of Andrew Getty’s bizarre horror film, an outsider art nightmare that could easily be written off as MST3K fodder. For some, though, the film will offer a worthwhile bit of insane cinematic off-roading.
There is precisely one way in which The Evil Within isn’t jaw-droppingly shocking: it’s exactly the kind of unconventional experience its incredible backstory would lead you to expect. That backstory, for the uninitiated: the writer-director, an heir to the Getty oil fortune with no significant filmmaking experience, spent several years shooting his opus, sinking several million dollars of his own money into the project. He then spent several more years tinkering in post-production, allegedly trying to get the film’s many fx shots just how he wanted them. Then Getty died in 2015 at age 47, his film still unfinished.
Completed by a producer and released this year, The Evil Within presents Dennis (Koehler), a special-needs adult living under the care of his guilt-ridden older brother John (Sean Patrick Flannery). John’s girlfriend Lydia (Dina Meyer) is pushing him to put Dennis in a home, but John’s sense of duty won’t allow Dennis to be placed in an underfunded state home. He bides his time, trying to spruce up their house to make it attractive to buyers, hoping to use the money to place Dennis in a top-notch facility.
This plot point calls for John to place an antique, full-length mirror in Dennis’ room. The problem with that mirror is Dennis’ reflection immediately starts talking to him, telling him that he’ll become smarter if he starts taking lives. So at the behest of this mirror demon (sometimes played by Koehler, sometimes by genre mainstay Michael Berryman), Dennis starts killing animals, then children, then acquaintances. (That killing children falls between killing dogs and killing loved ones on the film's sliding moral scale is just one peek at the uneasy, oblique worldview to which the movie subscribes.) In his house’s hidden Prohibition cellar, Dennis begins storing the bodies and working on an unseen carpentry project; the body count builds toward John (and us) learning Dennis’ - or is it the demon’s? - endgame.
A large part of the drama is derived from what a pain in the ass Dennis is for the exhausted John, and thanks to Koehler's exhaustive (and exhausting) portrayal, you can believe it. He and Flannery manage a credible enough dynamic of an underequipped, overtaxed caretaker and his difficult charge that we aren't sure where our sympathies should lie. Less believable is the preposterously overwritten dialogue - especially Dennis’ narration, which goes on for ten minutes before the plot proper kicks off.
But “believable” becomes a rather quaint sticking point as we become immersed in Getty’s constructed reality: characters just don’t behave like normal human beings, and the actors are left to sort it out themselves, adrift in a world that only casually resembles our own. Even banal dinner scenes take on a surreal tone, and it’s hard to discern if this is the result of directorial inexperience or a legitimately fractured view of the world. (There’s a scene at a Chuck E Cheese-type eatery with a fucking straight-up haunting animatronic band performing onstage.) Similarly, the FX work is conjured from an imagination unencumbered by either reality or genre trends. Stubbornly practical, in-camera effects are at times genuinely startling in both execution and audacity. The effect is astonishing: you can’t believe Getty is attempting what he is, and then you can’t believe it’s kind of working on you. This disconnected vibe provides enough WTF fuel that you can point to virtually any moment in the film as proof that The Evil Within would be an absolute howler with a rowdy audience.
But there’s a bigger takeaway here. “It's so easy to laugh, it's so easy to hate” as the song goes, but isn't it more exciting to imagine a filmmaking landscape where true freedom of expression existed? What if artists got to tell their personal, non-universal stories exactly how they wanted, even if they have to invent a new storytelling language to do it? What if narrative cinema never crystallized into a fairly rigid set of storytelling rules, with one agreed-upon cinematic vocabulary? The Evil Within, for all its psychotic seams showing, lets us peer into its cursed mirror and glimpse just such an alternate world for 98 minutes. That’s a proposition that’s not only valid, but kind of exciting. Sure, Getty struggles with certain storytelling basics - time will expand or contract to suit him, with important events happening between scenes, while expository exchanges go on forever, and there's a conversation with an off-duty bookstore employee that's just sheer fucking lunacy - but Getty’s also quite successful at rendering a circuitous-but-authentic nightmare logic to a degree that we’ve maybe never seen in a narrative genre film before.
Your mileage may vary, but The Evil Within offers the kind of singular outsider art for which certain film fans clamor: Timothy Carey’s The World’s Greatest Sinner, Craig Denney’s The Astrologer, and the works of Neil Breen all come to mind while watching Getty’s vision unfold. Though those films run the gamut of technical competence, what excites us about them is the filmmakers’ willful disregard for cinematic convention, their weird insistence on existing despite what they do or don’t know about the craft. The Evil Within is following some kind of rulebook, but the film’s ultimate appeal is that it’s playing by a rulebook we might never understand. Dismiss it if you insist, but the film is if nothing else a wild ride with no roadmap and an unlicensed driver, and it feels like it’s showing us actual insanity more than once. So many contemporary horror films feel like polished posturing; there’s an unsafe, illicit quality to The Evil Within that makes it kind of special.
More compelling still, peeking around the corners of Getty’s madness is a surprising, intimate knowledge of mental illness. For every few minutes of weird, bottle universe behavior that would never happen in real life, there’s a moment of genuine insight - John’s frustration with raising his brother, the way a special-needs individual sees the world - that’s impossible to dismiss. Narratively, there IS a plan here, God help us, and the the film’s climax make a kind of gonzo thematic sense, even as your mouth hangs open in response to the places Getty is willing to go to get there. The end result is an unwieldy work that’s attempting to tell you something amazing in a language it doesn’t quite speak. And it feels at times like nothing less than a battle between messy, uncooperative reality and an imaginative, unquiet mind trying to exorcise its own demons.