Grim and gruesomely effective, When Evil Lurks takes audiences on a disturbing ride to a destination they may fear to go.
An Argentinian import currently in limited U.S. theatrical release, When Evil Lurks does what few possession movies do: something interesting. In the five decades since The Exorcist, that film’s ur text has been shredded into cinematic confetti and flung across the screen without any cultural relevance to add dramatic weight to the horrifying visuals. Writer-director Demián Rugna has fixed this problem by setting his story in a specific cultural context, abetted with local folklore, lending a sense of authenticity to his grimly effective spin on the subgenre.
For all of its shocks and suspense – and there are plenty – When Evil Lurks is the story of isolated, rural people wrestling with a problem beyond their skill set while the few local authorities look the other way – less out of skepticism than fear of engaging with something that may not be subject to civil authority. The result is a sort of doomed odyssey in which the burden falls on men ill equipped to carry it, as if Frodo were carrying the One Ring to Mount Doom without the benefit of Gandalf’s protection.
When Evil Lurks Review: Rotting Evil
The story follows brothers Pedro (Ezequiel Rodríguez) and Jimmy (Demián Salomón), who find a horribly mangled stranger not far from their property. Among the victim’s effects are mechanical parts for a mysterious device and a map leading to a local residence, where the mother explains that the dead man was a “Cleaner” coming to kill her son- at her request. The son, Uriel, is so overweight he resembles a bloated carcass filled with putrescence, identifying him as a “Rotten” – that is, a possessed being who wants to die so that the demon inside can be physically born into the world.
The Rotten seems to be infections – spiritually and/of physically – so quickly getting rid of him his crucial. The problem is that no one knows exactly what to do, though they do have some ideas about what not to do: using firearms or electric lighting only helps the evil spread, and simply killing Uriel will release the demon inside him, so along with another local rancher Pedro and Jimmy transport Uriel in the back of their pickup truck and dump him miles away from home.
But is that far enough, and are they already infected? Is it possible to escape the region and find safety in town? Pedro intends to find out, seeking his ex-wife’s family in order to reclaim his children and flee. Meanwhile, Jimmy, who vaguely recognized the dead man’s mechanical device, may have an old acquaintance who can help….
When Evil Lurks Review: Desperation
A profound sense of desperation hangs over the proceedings, because the characters are caught in socio-economic-cultural situations that put “easy” solutions out of reach. Unable to definitely kill the evil lurking in their midst, the obvious course is to run as far as possible, but these are characters for whom pulling up stakes and leaving everything behind – everything that might be infected – is not easy; they have few resources and nowhere to go but away from here. What else can they do?
Additionally, panic and poor judgement mar their judgment. Pedro’s efforts to “rescue” his children puts them at risk because he may be helping the Evil spread. Upon arriving at his ex-wife’s house, he immediately disrobes and demands new clothing, but while she tries to figure out why he is acting so outrageously, the family dog is sniffing his old clothes, and her young daughter is playfully interacting with the pet, setting the audience’s nerves on edge as they wait…and wait….
We won’t spoil what happens in this particular situation, but rest assured that When Evil Lurks is not afraid to break taboos, so being a child is no guarantee of safety – nor even a guarantee of innocence, as the Evil spreads and corrupts those around it, killing and then inhabiting its victims. Everyone is a potential victim – it’s a question more of when than whether someone will succumb – which leads to more than one instance of cannibalism (kept offscreen but revealed in ways that are quite disturbing). The physical manifestations are gruesomely chilling – including a self-inflicted ax to the face – but the impact goes beyond visceral shock, showcasing humanity at a loss due to personal failings (Pedro has a back story that makes him particularly ill-suited to be fighting the battle against Evil). The introduction of another Cleaner near the end provides some hope for salvation, but by that point it may be too late.
When Evil Lurks Review: Conclusion
Writer-director Rugna handles the proceedings with grim conviction. The desperation of Pedro and Jimmy infects the viewer; we know they are trying their best even though their best is probably not good enough. The horrible moments have an old-school feel, as if largely realized with practical effects, thought CGI is used as well, sometimes effectively but not always (in one case, the buildup to a scare outweighs the payoff, because the flash of digital action at the end feels artificial).
If When Evil Lurks has any failings, it is first in being a little too convincing in its depiction of seemingly inevitable doom (Pedro’s autistic son seems such an easy vessel for the Evil to possess that it seems more like a question of when than if). Second, Rugna’s approach is perhaps too authentic to the hapless characters. Just as Pedro and Jimmy seem to be running around with no clear plan, the film sometimes seems to be running at full speed without necessarily knowing where it is going. The journey is hectic and fast-paced enough to sweep the audience along, but in the end they may feel as if taken for a ride that leaves them as exhausted and agonized as the characters.
When Evil Lurks (Cuando acecha la maldad, 2023)
1 – Avoid
2 – Not all bad
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See
Grim and gruesomely effective, When Evil Lurks embraces its genre but never feels generic, depicting disturbing situations with a level of conviction that makes the horror creep under your skin. Audiences looking for some enjoyable thrills and chills may be put off by the serious approach, but our only qualm is that the cards are stacked so heavily that the conclusion seems inevitable well before the end.
Cast: Ezequiel Rodríguez, Luis Ziembrowski, Federico Liss, Demián Salomón, Silvina Sabater, Emilio Vodanovich, Desirée Salgueiro, Virginia Garófalo, Marcelo Michinaux, Paula Rubinsztein.
Credits: Written & directed by Demián Rugna. Photographed by Marioan Suarez. Production Deisgner: Laura Aguerrebhere. Editor: Lionel Cornstein. Effects: Marcos Berta. Music; Pablo Fuu. 99 mins. US Theatrical Release by IFC Films on October 6, 2023. Steaming Debut on Shudder on Shudder: October 27.
When Evil Lurks is playing in limited engagements in the Los Angeles area at the following locations: Laemmle Noho 7, Regal Sherman Oaks Galleria, AMC Burbank 16, AMC American at the Brand, Alamo Drafthouse, Laemmle Monica Film Center, and Regal Paseo. Starting Friday, October 13, it moves into the AMC Rolling Hills and the Frida Cinema.