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History of Evil

Ponderous and dull, “History of Evil” is the kind of script that plays with hot-button ideas instead of having a single thing to say about them. It seems clear that we’re in for a wave of films about the increasingly divided state of the country in the 2020s—films like Alex Garland’s upcoming “Civil War,” for example—but the hope is that this "Make America Scared Again" horror subgenre adds to both the political and cinematic conversations instead of just using controversial topics like some sort of Outrage Mad Libs. One really has to dig into the surface of “History of Evil” to find the kernel of an idea that could have worked, and it’s quite bluntly just not even remotely worth the effort.

That kernel is essentially a Southern version of “The Shining,” wherein it’s not the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel but the hatred in this country that infects a seemingly decent man. Said man is named Ron (Paul Wesley), and he lives in a dark vision of the future. Set in 2045, an opening crawl informs viewers that the world has been divided and overrun by right-wing evangelicals, empowered like local militias to destroy non-believers in what is now known as the “North American Federation.” Ron is part of the Resistance, of course, and the film opens with an effective scene wherein he attempts to transport his wife Alegre (Jackie Cruz), daughter Daria (Murphee Bloom), and ally Trudy (Rhonda Dents) through an enemy checkpoint. Alegre is a wanted fugitive, a political terrorist fighting the powers that be. They need to get her to safety, but that requires holing up in an abandoned house while they await extraction.

And that’s where “History of Evil” shifts from thriller to supernatural cautionary tale. It turns out that the old house is haunted by an old racist, a former member of the KKK, who basically indoctrinates Ron into his belief system as they await rescue and dodge nearby bands of militia members. Imagine the bartender from “The Shining” was a racist old man, and you have some idea what writer/director Bo Mirhosseni is attempting here, trying to shine a light on how belief systems can be poisoned by the violent history of this country.

It's not a horrible idea, but the execution is another story. Most of all, the performances are uniformly wooden, done no favors by dialogue and plotting that never once feels grounded. Poor Cruz and Dents feel like they’re not really doing anything but waiting off-camera until they’re needed to reflect our protagonist’s collapse, and Wesley can’t find the right register for what should be a descent into madness. He more often looks bored than terrified or twisted. This needs to be played almost like a Southern Gothic, a nightmare that profiles the unraveling of a man under the weight of an entire history of evil. There’s no weight to any of it. It's bafflingly flat when it needs to be anything but to work.

It’s also just one of those infuriating films in terms of human behavior, the kind of script wherein a character tells the leads that the reason they’re hiding in this house is because “people are terrified of it,” and they never bother to ask, “WHY MIGHT THAT BE?!?!?” Worst of all, it’s almost as if Mirhosseni is afraid of his own ideas. After all, there’s something to the theory that people who are truly evil are ones who are stuck in the past; it’s just a shame that this movie gets almost defiantly stuck in its own bad ideas too.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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History of Evil (2024)

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