When Evil Lurks (2023)

OCTOBER 27, 2023


For those not in Los Angeles, our annual Beyond Fest is jam-packed with great, "must-see" events, with a healthy mix of new stuff making the festival rounds, world premieres, and repertory offerings (for the latter, this year gave us the unveiling of the long-in-the-works 4K remaster of The Abyss director's cut, with James Cameron on hand for Q&A - just an example). Perhaps needless to say, tickets for the screenings tend to sell out fast, and you have to fight hard (read: hit refresh a lot) to get to that magical checkout screen, but in one of the many ironies that make up my life, I managed to get a ticket for When Evil Lurks (Spanish: Cuando acecha la maldad) only to not be able to use it due to a scheduling conflict. And then I couldn't make any of its standard showings when it opened in theaters two weeks ago for a limited run prior to its Shudder debut, so alas I had to watch at home, defeated.

Not that it's a tour de force for the senses kind of thing you need to see in theaters, but I just prefer to see films for the first time that way, something that only got worse during the pandemic when I was forced to settle for the drive-in and all its distractions (cars arriving late, various environmental issues like helicopters or nearby traffic, horribly dim screens) for over a year whenever seeing anything new. I can leave my phone in the other room and wait until I have the house to myself (save for the cats), but I still can't have a distraction-free screening at home the way I can in a theater, and while that might be fine for some goofy comedy or even an action flick, a dark supernatural horror film like this can't quite have the same hold on me at home the way it could have in a theater with a respectful crowd (which Beyond Fest ones usually are).

I say all of this as a sort of "grain of salt" explanation, because I can't help but wonder if I would have been as blown away by the film as folks who saw it on the big screen. It's good, don't get me wrong, but it wasn't anything extraordinary either. I suspect two moments in particular (both involving children) have elevated its rep, because of the "rule" that kids don't die in movies, but I mean... they do? We've all rewatched some/all of the Halloween movies recently, and a few young'ns have met grisly fates in those (Buddy in Halloween 3, Bumpy in the 2018 one, plus Billy is nearly killed in H5 - hmm, maybe don't have a B___Y name if you want to survive Haddonfield?). And Quiet Place kicked things off with the death of their kid, and that was PG-13. Sure, it's not a regular occurrence, but while those events are good shock moments here (well one is, the other is off-screen but has an unsettling aftermath), they're not exactly breaking any new ground either.

Outside of those two brief highlights, what you have is a darker take on Mike Mendez' Don't Kill It, where a demon is possessing folks (or animals) but if you kill the host it will just jump into another. A "Cleaner" can exorcise the demon properly, but what kicks the whole plot off is our hero Pedro (Ezequiel Rodríguez, who's got a real Tom Jane vibe that I dug) finding the body of one such exorcist on his land, and they can't find another and the authorities won't help. But it's not that they don't believe him; one of the more interesting things about the movie (albeit not fully explored) is that possessed folks (referred to as "Rottens") are kind of known throughout the area and the higherups just basically shrug it off and consider it something we just have to live with and hope it doesn't affect them directly. I don't know if it was definitely the case, but I read it as a low-key jab at how certain countries (cough, America, cough) ultimately dealt with Covid, and I laud director Demián Rugna for it.

(Also, they specifically say guns are no way to solve the problem, and everyone who uses one in the movie is met with a horrible fate, so that amused me greatly and dded to the "sigh, Americans" vibe.)

Another thing Rugna does that I liked was that it kept switching gears. The first 20 minutes or so all take place on Pedro and the neighbor's property, making it seem like a contained, isolated thriller that will be a slow burn kind of thing. But then after something spoiler-y happens, Pedro and his brother get more proactive, going into the nearby suburbs to rescue their mom and also Pedro's estranged family (his ex wife who has since remarried, his two sons with her, plus the boys' half sister and her dad), and things kick up a notch, as an outbreak of sorts occurs and sends Pedro running/driving all around the area trying to keep everyone safe as the possession jumping gets out of control. And then the third act revolves around a new character with some answers, plus two new locations to boot. It gives the plotting a bit of a random jumpiness, but at least you're never quite sure how things are going to play out, who is safe, etc.

One thing I didn't like isn't the movie's fault though - the subtitle work (the movie is in Spanish) is garbage. The translation is done by someone who was seemingly just going word for word and not always with the correct verb tense, so the longer a line is, the more it tends to be "off" and making you work a little harder to suss out the exact meaning, which is a needless distraction and could be avoided by simply having done the work correctly. I know AI is being used for this sort of job nowadays, and it wouldn't surprise me if it was to blame, but either way we deserve better. This also leaves a crucial bit of backstory involving Pedro's character (and specifically why his ex-wife has full custody of their children) maddeningly unclear, as it seems like it's supposed to be something the audience has to put together as opposed to being spelled out, but that's harder when the translated lines are also incomplete. I am curious if they had a better version for its theatrical showings; they're not burned into the image (and as always with Shudder, they just run on the bottom of the screen even when the credits are there, so you get to squint trying to separate a line of dialogue from the name of the casting director too!) so it's possible they're different.

But other than that, it's an impressively dark possession tale, one that thankfully avoids most of the tropes of these kind of movies (the exorcist is dead right from the start! The police believe it's happening but just don't care!) and has a bit of a mean streak to it that you don't see all that much. I don't know if it's the gamechanger it was made out to be by fest crowds, and I am baffled by the publicity of a "perfect Halloween movie" since it's just dark and hopeless and that doesn't fit the Halloween vibe to me at all (it's a fun holiday and there's nothing fun here?), but a good movie is a good movie, and it's always nice to get one of those.

What say you?


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