Fans can argue about which project represents Steven Spielberg’s first feature-length directorial endeavor, since he made a lengthy amateur film in 1964 and helmed a pair of 90-minute TV episodes, including the first regular installment of Columbo, in 1971. Yet the excellent made-for-TV thriller Duel is generally considered his proper cinematic debut because it’s a stand-alone project distinguished by Spielberg’s trademark visual imagination. Three years later, Spielberg graduated to theatrical features with The Sugarland Express (1974), and then came Jaws (1975). Nestled within Spielberg’s filmography, however, are two mostly forgotten telefilms. They represent his sole output for the years between Duel and The Sugarland Express, steps along his path from promising newcomer to certified wunderkind.
The first of these pictures, Something Evil, is unimpressive. A story about demonic possession with a suspicious resemblance to The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty’s hit 1971 novel, the picture stars Sandy Dennis and Darren McGavin as a New York City couple who impulsively move to a house in the country. Written without much subtlety or verve by Robert Clouse (who later found success as a director of action films), Something Evil hits nearly every cliché imaginable. The kooky neighbor warning about evil spirits as he performs weird rituals. The strange noises emanating from various places late at night. The inexplicable changes in people’s behavior. The equally inexplicable denial by rational people that something strange is happening. So while the setup is simple enough and the climax has a small supernatural kick, most of Something Evil is boring—not a word one generally associates with Spielberg.
Dennis isn’t especially interesting to watch, McGavin gets shoved offscreen for long stretches, and juvenile actor Johnny Whitaker (previously of the TV series Family Affair) is a generic Hollywood kid. There’s also not enough screen time for enjoyable supporting players Ralph Bellamy and Jeff Corey. Thus the only real novelty stems from searching for hints of Spielberg’s prodigious talent. A few scenes in Something Evil are shot well, with dramatic angles and moody lighting, but the whole thing feels so enervated and rushed that it’s hard to believe the same man made magic of out Duel the previous year. Maybe he was tired after rigging all those cool shots of tires and highways.
Something Evil: FUNKY