A line spoken early in A Name for Evil sets the tone for what follows: “Let’s explore our truth so we don’t wreck each other.” The line is so infused with hippy-dippy ’70s sensitivity, and yet also so laden with portent, that it symbolizes A Name for Evil. The picture wants to be hip and sensual, but it’s overwrought and sleazy. The film also wants to be mysterious and terrifying, but it’s a bewildering exercise in self-parody. Some bad movies run off the rails. This one runs off the rails, soars over a cliff, spirals into a ravine, and drills straight down to the molten center of the earth. Simply dismissing A Name for Evil as a misguided attempt at supernatural horror doesn’t do the picture justice. A Name for Evil is so completely off the mark, in every conceivable way, that it should be registered as a controlled substance. (Not one of the fun ones.)
Fed up with the 9-to-5 grind, big-city architect John Blake (Robert Culp) uproots his semi-estranged wife, Joanna (Samantha Eggar), and moves to a lakeside mansion in the Deep South. Once owned by John’s ancestor, a Confederate major, the sprawling house is in horrible disrepair, so Joanna wants out immediately. For no discernible reason, John insists on staying, even as creepy apparitions suggest the place is haunted, and the narrative becomes more and more fragmented as it toggles between hallucinations and reality. How weird does the movie get? Try this on for size. John repeatedly spots a white horse roaming around the mansion grounds, and a caretaker claims that the horse belongs to John’s ancestor, who has been dead for decades. One evening, John leaps onto the horse’s back, rides the animal through the countryside, and continues riding it through the front entrance of a honky-tonk. When John stumbles off the horse, the patrons react as if nothing out of the ordinary happened. Then the patrons compel John to join in some feast/hoedown deal, where the evening’s culinary fare includes giant plates of spaghetti delivered from the honky-tonk’s basement. Next, the local mechanic/priest (!) hooks John up with a compliant chick named Luanna (Sheila Sullivan) while a singer serenades the crowd with a Summer of Love-style pop song. John and Luanna participate in a line dance that suddenly transforms into something resembling an all-nude occult ritual. Finally the scene shifts to a forest clearing, where John and Luanna have epic sex. Cut to the next morning. As John dresses, he casually asks Luanna if she saw where he left his horse.
Not every scene reaches this level of incomprehensible trashiness, but A Name for Evil is spellbindingly weird from start to finish. Scenes stop and start without explanation, continuity shifts in bizarre ways, and dialogue runs the gamut from opaque to pretentious. Behavior is mystifying, though John’s insatiable sex drive is a constant—in one scene, he and Luanna screw underwater with such intensity that the ground beneath them starts to glow as if it’s become radioactive. Or maybe not. In trying to put across the notion that the mansion and/or the spirit of its previous occupant has possessed John, writer-director Bernard Girard destroys the boundary separating fantasy from reality, and not in a good way. The movie’s “hidden secrets” are laughably obvious, while basic facts, such as whether Luanna actually exists, remain unknowable. A Name for Evil is such a chaotic piece of filmmaking that the only clues it’s a fright flick, at least until the ending, are the spooky textures of Dominic Frontiere’s excellent score.
It appears this misbegotten movie began its life in 1970, when MGM financed the film but shelved the disappointing final product. Three years later, the film-production wing of Penthouse magazine acquired the picture, amped up the horror angle and the sex stuff, and unleashed A Name for Evil on the world. Clearly, the dark forces lurking within the very celluloid of this deliciously rottten film would not be denied.
A Name for Evil: FREAKY