Director Steven Spielberg's followup to his landmark TV film DUEL cannot hope to match the heights of that film, mostly owing to a muddled screenplay and an ending that comes off as if everybody realized they had five minutes left and decided to wrap things up quickly. Still, in its best moments, SOMETHING EVIL lives up to its title, offering plenty of strange goings on and creepy moments galore. Sandy Dennis and Darren McGavin play a couple who buy an old farmhouse, unaware that there is, well, something evil about the place. Is it the spirit of a previous tenant? A poltergeist? Satan? We are never really told, but whatever it is, it's really kicking up a fuss. If the movie doesn't really resolve in a satisfactory way, it is still worth the strange trip to get to that inadequate ending.
Take this any way you wish, but part of the reason SOMETHING EVIL is so offbeat, in a good way, is the performance by Sandy Dennis. An actress with an inimitable style, Dennis and her odd acting choices, her way with dialogue, her incredibly pained face (she always looks to me like before each scene, she was repeatedly slapped in the face, had salt rubbed in her eyes and then told her dog died) add to the film's strangeness much more than the performance of other fine actresses of the era would have. For one example, in the film's most skin-crawling scene, when she goes to investigate the sound of a baby crying in the storage shed, and comes across something completely unexpected and obviously malevolent, she doesn't scream and immediately run, but rather, she screams and then just turns and looks at the door, with a blank expression on her face, as if in a trance. All emotion suddenly disappears for a few seconds before she finally breaks for the door to escape. Maybe this is what Steven Spielberg wanted her to do, maybe she came up with it on her own, but it is just an unexpected, almost poignant moment. Most characters would be thinking "I'm gonna die!" while running to escape. Dennis's character takes a few moments to ponder her own imminent death before attemping to flee. In another scene, when a neighbor comes to visit the house, Dennis keeps the chain on the door and does not change her horribly tortured expression (seen above) for the entire scene. She did things other actresses wouldn't think of, and she did them in ways other actresses couldn't match. While certainly not unattractive, Dennis was not glamorous like many of her contempories. She was, however, fascinating. Barbara Eden, to name one star of the era, would have been fine in this part, but she probably wouldn't have any surprises up her sleeve. She would have given a typically good Barbara Eden performance. You look at Sandy Dennis in a movie, however, and you're probably thinking "What is she going to do next?". I think that's why directors loved casting her, from WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? to THE OUT-OF-TOWNERS to COME BACK TO THE FIVE AND DIME, JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN. She's impossible to ignore, even if she is annoying the hell out of you, which, oh, she could. You can't take your eyes off her, and not because she's a great beauty (she looks like your average neighbor from down the block whose name you don't know and who is having a bad day) but because you're afraid she might do or say something and you might miss it. Theater critic and Sandy Dennis fan Walter Kerr once described her approach to dialogue as if she treated sentences like they were "poor crippled things that couldn't cross a street without making three false starts from the curb.", Perfect.
Is this too much about the late Sandy Dennis? My apologies, but she always intrigued me as a kid, when I first saw her in THE OUT OF TOWNERS and then this film. It wasn't a childhood crush (that part of my brain belonged to, guess who, Barbara Eden), it was just an odd fascination, because I had never seen anybody else like Sandy Dennis before. And I haven't since anything like her since, either.
Anyway, even though this movie was directed by Steven Spielberg, features the above mentioned offbeat performance by Sandy Dennis, and has the beloved Darren McGavin in the cast to boot, it is not available for home viewing in any form, as far as I can tell. Now that's something evil! - JB