Friday 8 May 2009

Evilspeak (1981)

Director: Eric Weston
Stars: Clint Howard and Richard Moll

Heretical monk Lorenzo Esteban is banished from Spain by the Inquisition, who are surprisingly nice about it, not killing him and all. Nobody expected that! So off he sails with his followers to the New World where he cuts a pretty neat pentagram in the sand with his sword and celebrates black mass right there on the beach. Luckily for him, he has his followers with him and he has his requisite evil looking book intact, which is exactly the sort of thing that in horror movies gets refound centuries later by bullied kids so that they can use it to wreak revenge on their tormentors.

Sure enough that's what happens here in Evilspeak. We skip over the next few hundred years to find ourselves at the West Andover Military Academy where Clint Howard gets to play Stanley Coopersmith, the boy that everyone hates. It isn't just the kids either, like the ones on his football team who can actually play and hate the fact that he can't, it's the teachers too. The coach can't kick him off the team because school policy mandates that everyone gets to play sports, but he's happy to suggest to the biggest Coopersmith-haters right there in the locker room that hey, he couldn't play if something happened to him, hint, hint. Even Colonel Kincaid, who runs the place, is happy to indulge in a little corporal punishment on him while his cute secretary, Miss Friedemeyer, sits outside and listens.

Young Stanley's life changes on a punishment detail for the school's chaplain, Rev Jameson. Coopersmith gets to clean up the cellar, which is dark, suitably vast and generally populated only by the freaky caretaker called Sarge who has a penchant for the bottle. So when he finds a secret room full of secret books and secret lore, he's pretty clear to move in. Yes, West Andover was founded by Father Esteban and this is where he hid his stash of black paraphenalia, from gargoyle statues to pickled things in little jars. Even his coffin is here, cruciform in shape to boot, plus that cool looking book I mentioned too, all ready for our hero to read.

Clint Howard does an awesome job as Stanley Coopersmith, almost defining the nerdy but mostly sympathetic kid who would take over Hollywood in the eighties about as emphatically as Arnold Schwarzenegger, albeit in a very different way. He's less of an outsider than someone like the title character in Carrie, this being very much Carrie in a military academy, and much more believable than those who would follow in a seemingly endless churn of nerd comedies. He's far more sympathetic than the spoiled rich kids who torment him, who for some reason are called unlikely names like Bubba and Jo Jo, but he's still idiotic enough to underline passages in that awesomely cool and centuries old book of Esteban's.

He also knows how to use a computer, which is something of a requisite for a movie nerd, and he moves his original Apple into his new hideout in the cellar. It has a really powerful translation tool, you see, that turns the Latin text of Esteban's notebook, for that's what this book is, into usable English. It even answers questions. 'What are the keys to the kingdom of Satan's majesty?' Stanley types, and this possessed Apple comes back with the precise ingredients and rituals. No, there's no internet and no Google, because this is 1981. It just knows...

Now, I started using home computers in 1981, with a vengeance, and I don't remember anything this cool or powerful, but beyond the inevitable technological liberties taken, especially with the graphics, this actually feels less dated than most films from the period that used computers. I laughed a little here but I wasn't annoyed, and as an IT professional, this is something that tends to annoy the crap out of me. Perhaps that's because it didn't rely on state of the art (at the time) digital effects that became dated about six months later; it uses basic pixellated characters and switches to analogue for almost everything else.

You can write much of the rest of the plot yourself as it really doesn't carry any great surprises, but you'll find that it's still well worth the effort to stick with for a couple of reasons. One is the cast, who are all decent and recognisable from elsewhere. Jake the cook is Lenny Montana, the 6'6" former wrestler who as Luca Brasi got to sleep with the fishes in The Godfather. Father Esteban is Richard Moll, the 6'8" Bull on Night Court. Not everyone's massively tall and some are a little less recognisable because of time passed, such as Don Stark, the lead tormentor here, who would grow up and become the neighbour on That 70's Show, making him Mr Tanya Roberts, at least for a while on screen.

The other reason is that the pace of the film is superbly managed. The story progresses slowly but surely, with a few nasty or utterly gratuitous scenes thrown in for good measure, and it builds gradually to a real peach of a climax. Not everything makes entire sense, not everything works the way it was intended to and it does fall foul of some '80s horror movie clich├ęs, but the payoff is simply joyous. I literally sat up in admiration as the massacre began and that admiration kept on building until the credits rolled.

Part of this success comes from how the film paves the way to the finale. The trailer is really cheesy and some of what was intended to be humorous in the film fits that adjective too, but that's misleading: what we really get is a slow and generally uncheesy build to a powerful payoff. Part of it comes from a soundtrack that hasn't dated like most early '80s films. Rather than go with trendy synth pop, composer Roger Kellaway, who had been Oscar nominated four years earlier for A Star is Born, put together a choral soundtrack with dabs of electronica.

And part of it was sheer luck. Scouting for locations in the Santa Barbara area, the filmmakers came upon a string of buildings about to be demolished to make way for a freeway and one of them was a church. So what we see at the climax is real, at least the bits that don't involve special effects gore sequences and Clint Howard flying across the aisle. The pigs are real, the fires are real and the destruction is real. And if pigs, fire and destruction don't give you enough incentive to watch this, let me point out that the special effects are very good indeed. Yes, there's better out there but I've seen movies from every year since that pale in comparison.

For 1981, I was very surprised at the quality, and that goes for the film and the effects both. This one's no great classic, but it's an underrated and neglected film that deserves a lot more attention that it's got. I was very happy to see it, albeit 28 years after its original release, and even happier to meet the director and co-writer, Eric Weston, who turned up for a Q&A. Not generally known for the horror genre (or any other single genre for that matter), he's recently returned to it for the imminent Hyenas, which he wrote and directed, and The Prometheus Project, which he is currently producing and which I recently got the happy opportunity to appear in. I'm only a featured extra in a cage fight sequence, so you'll probably be able to see me for a half second or so as the camera pans over the audience, but I wouldn't have minded a half second in Evilspeak either.

1 comment:

Dee said...

I couldn't agree more. :)