Sunday, September 11, 2011

Fear No Evil

Fear No Evil (1986)
Dir. Frank LaLoggia
Starring Stefan Arngrim, Elizabeth Hoffman, Kathleen Rowe McAllen

     Frank LaLoggia is one of those odd directors who directed one movie interesting enough to take seriously, but never built up a big enough filmography to make a name for himself. His 1988 film LADY IN WHITE is somewhat flawed (its melodrama a tad overwrought, its performances uneven, its score overbearing) but also manages to be a unique and somewhat classy affair, unique to its time for its deliberate pace, classic storytelling, and emphasis on atmosphere over shock. I was curious to see if his debut film, 1986’s FEAR NO EVIL, would confirm that he was a worthwhile director who never got the chance to blow people away or if LADY was a fluke success.

      The answer --as is often the case with this movie-- is unclear. FEAR NO EVIL is a worse film than LADY, and lacks most of the things I liked about the later film (slow pace, classic style, atmosphere). This one is closer to a teen horror film than a classy ghost story, but its still packed with unusual touches and interesting ideas which give it a distinct personality.

      The story is this: Many years ago, the Devil was reincarnated and, at adolescence, prepared to bring about the apocalypse. He was stopped (via impalement) by this old Irish priest, who himself was apparently an arch angel in human form (didn’t get that from the movie, but I’ll trust the IMDB description, I guess. I was pretty drunk.) Now, it’s the 80s and Satan is back in human form again and under the guise of a 20something high school kid, he's moving closer to his dark purpose. Opposing him are the sister of that priest from before and also one of his high school classmates, a young lady tragically born without any personality whatsoever.

      This has all the clichés you’d expect from an 80s high school horror film, including the feathered-hair hot ride-stealing bully, the obligatory boiler room teen sexcapades, the inevitable locker room humiliations, the conspicuously hip punk soundtrack. But it also has a lot of stuff which is pretty much unique to this one, including a series of surprisingly overt escalating homoerotic scenes, a bunch of religious hand-wringing, an enormous crumbling castle location on a lake in New York, a death via dodgeball, a high school jock suddenly sprouting boobs, a severe case of man-bites dog, a crucifixion. So that much sets it apart from “Welcome Back Kotter” in my opinion (though to be fair I haven't seen every episode, its possible they got a crucifixion one in there).

      What makes this one kind of interesting is that despite all the worn 80s high school tropes on display, the film is surprisingly ambiguous. Everything is so familiar that you feel like you know where this is going, but the film craftily (or perhaps obtusely) confounds your expectations and does something weird instead. By the halfway point, you realize you have no idea where all this is headed, or even what kind of movie this is. Is it a campy gore-fest, as the film's memorable death-by dodgeball scene would have you believe? Is it a religious anxiety film soaked with atmospheric dread, as its OMEN-esque opening suggests? Is it a weird high school drama with some supernatural elements, as its long middle sequence seems to believe? The answer --as is often the case with this movie-- is unclear. It seems to be kind of its own thing, but then again its all sown together from the parts of more familiar things. It's a Frankenstein's monster kind of movie and I genuinely cannot say with any confidence if that reflects ambition or incompetence on the part of the filmmaker. It doesn't seem like anyone on set is aware of what a weird film they're making, but then there is is, boldly letting it all hang out (like a good portion of the male cast ends up doing by the film's end).

        Say what you want about the antichrist, but he knows how to rock some fab sideburns.

      The female lead is so milquetoast that I didn't even realize she was the protagonist until finally there just wasn't anyone else. But Stefan Arngrim*, who plays young Satan (now going by the name Andy Williams**) does a great job, and plays a key role in keeping the proceedings off-kilter and interesting. He plays Andy as an intelligent, somewhat effete (if not outright gay) loner, but manages to make him seem more sympathetic than menacing. We hear from his alcoholic, abusive, murderous father that he's “a manipulator” and “the devil's spawn,” but the father seems like a way worse guy himself and so we're not inclined to take him seriously. Are we being manipulated by him, or is just a poor misunderstood kid who doesn't know what he's doing any more than any other high schooler does?

      It gets even more confusing as we begin to see him manifest his powers. In one scene, a bunch of bullies (all fully naked) start abusing him (also totally naked) in the gym shower, and one, to demonstrate just how gay this weird kid is, grabs him and kisses him full-on the mouth (you know, like high school bullies always do?). Things get weird fast though and they end up getting kind of stuck together at the mouth as Andrew pulls some kind of supernatural soul-sucking business on him. When it ends, the bullies run for it, but the interesting thing is that Andrew looks even more traumatized than they do, slumping down in the shower and looking drained and upset. But the next thing you know, he's killing a dog with an ax and drinking its blood. So, what, is he starting to get all Antichrist-y and doesn't know what's happening to him, or is he just a weirdo sensitive Satan who gets tired after some strictly platonic male-on-male nude shower open-mouth kissing? The answer --as is often the case with this move-- is unclear. But the ambiguity makes it more interesting.

      Overall, the film is a little too uneven to really recommend, but it has a few sequences which genuinely work up some grotesque dread, and even more that are memorably crazy if not entirely successful. Like its central antagonist, it can be hard to tell what it's really trying to do, and even when it seems to know it's not always great at pulling it off. But its still pretty interesting to watch something this weird develop, even if you can't quite figure out what its going for. The mystery of whether or not LaLoggia is a director worth serious study remains unsolved, but I'd say this movie is a net gain for the world. 

*according to IMDB, Arngrim is a musician who co-wrote many of the songs on Warren Zevon's arguable worst album, “Transverse City” (wikipedia credits him with only two, the title track and “Networking,” but those are both pretty decent songs so we'll give him a pass). 

**Yes, Andy Williams. His father is John Williams. I have a hard time believing that they didn't realize the hilariousness of those names, but if it means anything I sure as hell have no idea what it might be.


  1. I would not go so far as to call this a good movie, but there is something liberating about watching a movie completely disregard the normal rules for storytelling. I still can't figure out the point of the scene where the bully penetrates his girlfriend with a handgun. In any other movie, the scene of the bully brandishing a firearm would be a setup for later on when he fires it during the climax. Instead I'm pretty sure we never see the gun again. I don't know if those kinds of details were meant to deliberately mislead the audience, or if it was just a product of a grossly incompetent screenplay, but there's something fascinating about it. I'd definitely watch this one again some day.

    Also, for what it's worth, I dig TRANSVERSE CITY and think it's seriously underrated. It's one of those 80's albums where an older, established artist tried to experiment and make an album in that over-produced, synth-infused style that was the fashion at the time (see also Neil Young's LANDING ON WATER or Bob Dylan's EMPIRE BURLESQUE). I have a soft spot for those kinds of albums. They tended to be kind of odd, a weird mismatch of production and material, but I kind of dig that weird tension. I'd say the songwriting is solid on TRANSVERSE CITY, plus it's got this weird atmosphere that makes it stand out from Zevon's other albums.

    Then again, I am of the opinion that the man didn't make a bad album in his career. Including DEAD OR ALIVE and HINDU LOVE GODS, even if those are both completely inessential.

  2. Yeah I hope the review didn't sound like I was endorsing it as a good movie, just one which is interesting to watch. After much consideration, I think I'm coming down on the side of gross incompetence leading to most of this one's uniqueness, but at least it seems like it must be gross incompetence from someone genuinely strange. The gun dildo is one example of an inexplicable touch, but the one which sticks with me is the weird subplot about the parents. Dad seems right that his son ain't right, but he also seems like a drunken abusive asshole who abandons his family. At the end, we see him with a gun and it seems like he's going to have to step in and kill Andrew himself to make amends for his cowardice earlier in life. Instead, he just finds his near-comatose ex-wife and shoots her in the face and that's the last we see of him. What the fuck are we supposed to take away from that? It's genuinely unclear how the film feels about this turn of events or the characters involved. Weird, just weird. It's odd, too, because LADY IN WHITE (from what I remember) is actually extremely focused and even economical in its storytelling.

    That said, I can't entirely claim the fun of the movie is localized in its inexplicable screenwriting. There's the backbone of something legitimately unique and creepy in there. Maybe this is the opportunity for Mel Gibson to remake it and get that horror film in that I've been hoping for? The two films seem to share Gibson's unease as gender ambiguity and his demon-filled worldview of constant violence between good and evil.

    On the other hand, the most interesting hook in the movie may be the ambiguity of Andrew's character. It might be interesting to remake it and focus on him as a sympathetic protagonist (possibly making the film's gay subtext somewhat more meaningful). The Devil is the ultimate outsider, and the fact that he's born into it/ can't understand why he is the way he is might make for a nice little complication.

    I was gonna talk about Transverse City but actually I think I'm just gonna do a full review of it, so thanks for the inspiration. Even though it's not my favorite Zevon album, I do think its cool that Arngrim co-wrote with Zevon and it just makes me think he's probably a pretty awesome dude. Hey, he was on the X-files, too! And CLASS OF 1984! I totally want to be friends with thus guy.

  3. See, you're bringing up a lot of interesting things about it that I kinda noticed too, which is making me wonder if it's better than I'm giving it credit for. It's not really successful as a coherent story, but there are all these interesting themes and unique touches. Maybe I should be giving it more credit for it riffing on some offbeat gender and sexuality issues, even if it doesn't make a coherent statement about them. After all, I'm the guy who always argues that audiences put way too much stock into the plot of a film, and not enough in the style or atmosphere or themes or abstract qualities, etc etc.

  4. Yeah I think the main thing which works against it is its mismatched pastiche of different styles and tropes which make for a pretty inconsistent tone. Most reviewers who enjoy it seem to do so for its campier or more incompetent aspects, but there are some interesting ideas in there.

    I can't think of another horror film which is as thoroughly intrigued by gender fluidity issues. If IMDB is correct that the two female protagonists are reincarnated angels, that means the younger girl is actually a female incarnation of the old priest from the beginning! And (again, according to IMDB -- these two characters are so boring I kinda zoned out during their story, so this is hearsay) it seems to imply a sort of quasi-lesbian relationship between them. That combined with Andrew's general effeminate portrayal and then the increasingly overt homoerotic situations (Andrew's intense grunting pushups, the shower kiss, his antichrist open-front flowing black robe [btw, the same one Voldemort wears] and of course the crazy scene where he kisses the bully and the guy grows boos) seems to me to constitute pretty unmistakeable evidence that they were going for SOMETHING there.

    It would be easy to assume that its just standard Christian discomfort over alternate sexualities, except that the lesbian gender-switchers are the good guys and Andrew is the only even remotely sympathetic character in the whole thing. The bullies end up finding their own sexuality put into question, and they're such assholes we're pretty much onboard with Andrew in this little game.

    So I sort of wonder if it's not almost a gay empowerment story disguised as a Christian morality fable. Andrew is more Frankenstein's Monster than actual antagonist - persecuted for what he is, for things which are beyond his control, but ultimately more powerful than the small-minded assholes who think he's a weirdo. But his rejection of the world is too complete, so a different set of more well-balanced gender-benders have to stop him and set things right.

    Is that too serious an analysis for a film which also includes a guy beaned to death by a dodgeball? I honestly have no idea. Again, this movie is something of an enigma. But I do feel like they were definitely going for *something* here.

  5. I also seem to recall reading at somewhere (IMDB, probably?) that certain elements, like the zombies, were insisted upon by the producers. So that might explain the incongruous tone somewhat. It's just conjecture, but things like the dodgeball death could have been concessions to the producers, who wanted the movie more violent or something.