Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Evilspeak (1981)

Warning: the final paragraph is full of spoilers for the film’s ending, which is just too transcendental not to talk about

Stanley Coopersmith (Clint Howard) has lost badly at the roulette of chances in life. He’s a student at a military academy where he’s at best treated as the poor relation by the teachers, if he’s not outright bullied by them, and is brutally bullied and abused by the other students. Stanley does, after all, look kinda funny, is socially awkward, poor, is an orphan and therefor  has now grown-ups to back him up at least emotionally, and is really bad at keeping his head down far enough not to be noticed (which would basically be underground anyway). So there are many reasons he’s the perfect victim especially for main school bully Bubba (Don Stark) – whom I can’t help but imagine having become the complete bully he is to distract from his eminently hilarious name. Stanley’s only friend is the apparently only black student of the place, and you can imagine how much that’s helping either of them on the crappy social ladder of the hellhole that’s supposed to make expert killersheroic patriots out of them.

Things certainly start to change for our protagonist when he accidentally stumbles upon a hidden room in the school’s cellar, where he finds the grimoire of Father Esteban (Richard Moll), a devil-worshipper from the place’s past. Stanley is fascinated by the tome, managing to translate its Latin text through the super translation powers of the school computer. Nest step is starting to work on a ritual for acquiring the power of Satan. The thing is, while he’s the local punching bag, Stanley is also a genuinely decent kid without a cruel bone in his body, so a lot of additional horrible stuff will have to happen to him before he snaps. A lot of additional horrible stuff does indeed happen, and it’s not as if the damn grimoire wouldn’t have plans of its own.

Eric Weston’s Evilspeak is a prime argument for the closeness of the outright goofy to the perfectly clever in horror, as well as for the fact that a film might start as a bit of a rip-off of Carrie but can end up a thing all its own. Quite a few of the film’s elements, when seen from the wrong angle, are highly mockable. Take, for example, the whole bit where Stanley uses a very 1981 idea of a computer for his ritual and its preparations. On the one hand, this is not how computers – even demonically possessed computers one presumes – actually worked at the time (though Google would probably kill for the translation algorithm that puts out perfectly idiomatic translations). On the other, it’s also a perfect and clever way to mix the old-fashioned gothic element of the evil magic book with something utterly contemporary as of 1981; that this contemporary elements looks possibly even more quaint than the grimoire to our eyes in 2018 isn’t really anyone’s fault.

One could also argue the characters surrounding Stanley – particularly the grown-ups – are drawn with somewhat too broad strokes. However, when you’re a kid, particularly a bullied and crapped on by destiny one like Stanley, the people inflicting all manners of cruelty and indignity on you do indeed look like caricatures of actual human beings, and since we see most of what happens – apart from a couple of deaths to fill the murder quota and scenes setting them up, really – through the eyes of Stanley, it makes total sense we get to see them as caricatures too.

Weston is particularly good at escalating Stanley’s troubles, not really hiding under the film’s eccentric veneer he’s quite conscious of the mechanics of bullying as well as the things the victim of bullies fears the most. So the things that should help get Stanley through – a puppy, a companionable working-class cook, a girl that doesn’t outright mock him for his existence – will in the end just set him up for even worse troubles, and while that may not be a realistic portrayal of life, it sure as hell is one of the fears a kid like Stanley has.

The film has other strengths too: Weston is highly inventive when it comes to setting up the film’s scares and murders, using religious symbols – often also connected to things Stanley fears interestingly enough – in ways subtle and unsubtle (the death of the priest has to be seen to be believed, for example). Why, one might think someone involved in the film has a somewhat displeased connection to religion in his background. While the editing seems sometimes rough, the film is well-paced, looks good, and is generally atmospheric, with even its most lurid moments breathing a sense of place that helps sell them. There’s a bunch of character actors (other than the already mentioned ones for example R.G. Armstrong and Charles Tyner) working their magic on the exalted characters they are playing, and young Howard is pretty much the perfect guy to play Stanley.

And that’s all before we even come to the film’s finale which takes some elements of Carrie and blows them up into dimensions of inspired grotesquerie, big “what the fuck!?”s swirling in the speech bubbles about viewers’ heads when they witness a series of scenes where a priest’s death by a nail from a bleeding and moving Jesus statue is really only the beginning. For the following sequence will also contain a levitating Clint Howard with electrified hair decapitating people with a broadsword, demon killer pigs (making a return from an earlier scene) and a random zombie ripping a heart out. It’s gotta be seen to believed, and once you’ve seen it, you can’t but love it.

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