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When Evil Lurks

The most memorable aspects of Demian Rugna’s “When Evil Lurks,” which just had its world premiere in the Midnight Madness section of the Toronto International Film Festival, have an anarchic brutality that’s reminiscent of the work of an obvious influence in the Argentinian filmmaker, Lucio Fulci. This film doesn’t abide by many norms—dogs and children are not free or innocent, for the record—and gets great power from occasionally dropping into gory, gnarly insanity. It’s an admirably vicious piece of work when it wants to be—although arguably could have gone even further and more frequently. After all, once you open the door to Hell, viewers are willing to go with you wherever the journey leads.

Brothers Pedro (Ezequiel Rodriguez) and Jimmy (Demian Salomon) discover that a “rotten” has been growing or decomposing, or I don’t even know how to describe it, in a nearby farmhouse when livestock start acting funny. That’s usually the first sign that things are about to go very wrong in any movie like “When Evil Lurks.” Keep an eye on the animals—they know before the humans do. 

A “rotten” is a word for a possessed being, and it's an appropriately descriptive term. In this case, the poor possessed soul looks like a bloated, oozing mess. But the human instinct to show this hideous abomination the end of a shotgun is the wrong one. That’s exactly what the demon wants because it unleashes the evil to do more harm. Well, of course, things go very wrong after some truly stupid decisions, and Pedro and Jimmy have to try and put the demon genie back in the bottle as it creates grisly havoc across their community.

And I mean grisly. The first truly “whoa” scene involves an axe and a pregnant woman. And it gets gnarlier from there. In an era of cynical, meta-horror, it’s refreshing to see something with a main purpose that isn’t so much “conversation starter” but “stomach turner.” Rugna builds tension through these extreme acts of abject horror, portraying an evil that can make humans and creatures act in the most unexpectedly violent manner, possessed by pure malevolence. The possession aspect of “When Evil Lurks” adds another layer to the tension in that no one can be trusted. It almost makes one wonder if Rugna’s film could be read as a COVID-19 allegory in that once pure evil is unleashed, anyone can be infected, and no one can be trusted.

Sadly, the stellar first half of “When Evil Lurks” is stronger than the second, in which Rugna tends to overexplain what the brothers have to do and the general lore around a “rotten.” They even join forces with a “cleaner” (Silvina Sabater) who feels almost like a narrator to ensure the audience can follow what must happen next. It doesn’t help that the final act of “When Evil Lurks” ends up hinging on a largely silent autistic young man’s ability to withstand possession because demons can’t easily “figure out their minds,” a choice that makes Pedro’s son (Emilio Vodanovich) a pretty manipulative character.

There’s a version of “When Evil Lurks” that leans more into the potential chaos of the concept instead of trying to get a firm narrative grip on it or even get sentimental with its leading men and their families. Fulci never needed to be so blunt regarding exposition or narrative consistency. Audiences will forgive not understanding what’s happening if they’re too shocked and/or terrified to care. 

In the end, there's enough unforgettable imagery in “When Evil Lurks” to overcome its unfulfilled potential. The right audience will eat it up, ignoring both the undercooked and overcooked ingredients in this bloody stew, if they’re not too nauseous to do so.

This review was filed from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. "When Evil Lurks" has a limited theatrical release on October 6th, followed by a Shudder launch on October 27th.

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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