During those seven hundred or so years I was doing Horror Movie A Day, I saw a number of films that were singularly "off" in one way or another, often made by people who never directed or wrote another film again. These movies would fascinate me, to the extent I even half-brainstormed an Unsolved Mysteries-like show where the people behind these oddities would be tracked down and questioned about the mysteries of their horror movies, which managed to be bad and must-see in equal measures (not for irony, just for their sheer craziness). Because there was never much information about them on their IMDb page (forget about even having a Wiki entry), and I have a full time job and also am not a detective so I couldn't very well seek them out myself, I'd never know what the hell was up with these movies, which is why I am so delighted with The Evil Within, because at least we have some explanation for why it's so goddamn batshit.
As you're probably aware of by now, the film's writer/director is Andrew Getty, part of the famously wealthy Getty family (not the Chippewa Falls Getty's), who died before the film was completed. It's not the first time a filmmaker passed away before seeing his project reach an audience, but I'm willing to bet $4-6m that this is the first time it's happened to a guy who spent THIRTEEN YEARS working on said movie, obsessively tinkering with each and every shot as the cast and crew came and went. Supposedly, the only two people that were there the entire time were Fred Koehler, who plays our main character Dennis, and Michael Berryman, who is only in a few scenes as a nightmare man (or "Storyteller", the film's original title). The end credits confirm the massive crew turnover, at least - there isn't a single job on the movie that wasn't carried out by at least two people, with things like "1st assistant camera operator" taking up nearly a full screen's worth of space; over a dozen names for a job that's usually done by two or three people, tops.
To Getty's credit, none of that chaos really shows up on-screen. The pacing and structure was likely compromised by the cast changes, resulting in the film's many "huh?" moments, but from scene to scene it looks/feels like a real movie - this is not the horror version of The Room, in other words. Its ultimate cult appeal may fall on the same lines, but if people go to see The Evil Within at midnight screenings for the next ten years, it's for its insane plot and woefully misguided lead performance, not because the scenes are out of focus or because the dubbing is out of sync. And there are even a few legitimately solid sequences, nearly all of which are the nightmares of Dennis, our troubled protagonist. He dreams of mirror effects, creepy animatronics, stop-motion creatures... it's all music video-esque stuff, sure, but it's visually striking and not like anything else you usually see in direct to VOD horror from first time filmmakers.
Alas, Dennis doesn't spend the entire movie sleeping, and when he's awake that's when things go awry. Let's not beat around the bush here: playing a mentally challenged man, Koehler is definitely guilty of that thing Robert Downey Jr warned Ben Stiller about in Tropic Thunder. This puts things squarely in "uh-oh" territory when that performance is serving not a manipulative tearjerker or "offbeat" comedy, but a form of slasher movie where the afflicted person is in the Jason Voorhees role. Dennis doesn't start out as a murderer; he's just a guy who loves chicken and ice cream (particularly when served by the very pretty girl at the ice cream shop that seemingly caters only to Dennis), and playing with his giant Habitrail system. But one day his big brother (Sean Patrick Flanery) puts a giant antique mirror in his room, and everything goes to hell, because this is a horror movie and antique mirrors can only mean one thing: evil reflections forcing their owners to start killing.
Now, if Dennis wasn't a man with a severe mental handicap, this would just be another bad horror movie about an evil mirror (save Oculus, they all suck, and even that is probably Flanagan's weakest film), but with Koehler doing his... "thing" (if you can't tell, I'm trying really hard to talk about this without being as offensive as the movie is), you enter unique territory that transcends the idea of "good or bad". The closest thing I can think of is Crispin Glover's It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine, but at least that had someone who actually had the disability, which paints the "this is offensive" argument with a different brush. Anyone familiar with me knows I don't get offended at anything like this, but I can still recognize a poor choice when I see it, and find it slightly distasteful (not to mention just plain awkward) that one of the movie's selling points is seeing an actor carry on in this exaggerated manner. There is also an evil social worker, which also left a bad taste in my mouth as these folks have one of the most thankless jobs in the world and don't need to be represented as criminals (she basically goads Flanery into getting angry, and then later breaks into his home). The fact that this subplot has no real payoff makes it unnecessary on top of insulting, plus she never meaningfully interacts with Dennis (i.e. the person she supposedly wants to help), adding to the pointlessness of the whole thing.
In between Dennis' murderous adventures (or scenes where he talks to his mirror self), we are treated to a series of scenes with Flanery and girlfriend Dina Meyer, who apparently spend their lives going to and from the one restaurant in Los Angeles that will have them, arguing about Dennis and whether or not they can get married. For reasons we learn way too late in the movie, Flanery is hellbent on caring for Dennis himself (even though he seems to be a pretty shitty caregiver), so that's a sticking point for Meyer who doesn't want to deal with him. Since the social worker wants to care for Dennis (as does a doctor played by Francis Guinan), Meyer's getting fairly annoyed that they have an easy out that Flanery doesn't seem to want to take, so she's a pretty heartless character for no real reason (basically, everyone in the movie is a goddamn jerk). Then at one point they detour into a Twilight Zone subplot where everyone they usually see at the restaurant has been replaced (they apparently have a "usual valet"), but there's no payoff for this, and they never really seem to notice that Dennis has become a serial killer, which gives all of their scenes a strange disconnect. Given what Koehler has said about him and Berryman being the only two actors to stick through the entire production (which went on for several years, starting in 2002*), I have a feeling both Flanery and Meyer quit the film before filming all of their scenes, forcing Getty and the editor(s) to spread their footage out throughout the film, intercut with Dennis' scenes that would originally be happening much later. I'd be very curious to get a look at the shooting script to see how much changed, and if the things that go nowhere in the film originally had some semblance of a point.
But for all its problems (both morally and narratively), it is like nothing else you'll find in the new releases horror section of your favorite VOD supplier, and for that I must give it some credit. When I was doing Horror Movie A Day, the worst films were the ones that gave me nothing to say after because they were so bland and forgettable (for some I'd have to start writing as soon as the movie finished before what little it offered evaporated from my memory), and I'd welcome things like this. Had this movie come out when it was supposed to it likely would have been one of my daily selections, and that would be a godsend. Because even though it's not particularly good, I know I won't forget key scenes and images five or six years down the road, which is all I'd really ask for, especially in that last year or so once finding gems became even harder and harder. I wish it was better overall, of course, but the few moments of WTF near-brilliance and the sheer audacity of it all means I'm glad I saw it, and even if I didn't know the backstory I'd be occasionally mesmerized by just how damn weird it was.
*If anyone had doubts that the film wasn't REALLY fifteen years in the making, it sports a cameo from actor Matthew McGrory, who is best known to horror fans as Tiny from House of 1000 Corpses and Karl from Burton's Big Fish. He passed away in 2005, making his scene at LEAST twelve years old.