Argentinian Horror Masterwork When Evil Lurks is Repugnantly Extraordinary
After making something of a cult name for himself with 2017’s Terrified, Argentinian filmmaker Demián Rugna returns with When Evil Lurks, easily his most ambitious and polished effort to date. It’s one of the most viciously cruel and deeply unsettling motion pictures I’ve seen in all of 2023. It chilled me right to the bone in the first 20 minutes and then continued to dig deeper and deeper into the marrow from there.
It’s difficult to shake up the possession subgenre in a post-The Exorcist world (which makes it ironic that Rugna’s film is opening in limited release the same weekend The Exorcist: Believer goes wide), and I won’t say that the talented writer-director makes much of an attempt to do so. Instead, he just leaves out most of the backstory entirely. Rugna presents his characters, establishes the dire nature of their situation, lets them make a handful of truly idiotic mistakes, and then asks us to wait patiently to see if they and their remaining loved ones will survive.
Somehow this works. Part of it is because actors Ezequiel Rodríguez and Demián Salomón, portraying brothers Pedro and Jimi Yazurlo, are so gosh darn compelling. Another aspect is that this isolated, small-town world Rugna has crafted feels instantly authentic. Finally, it’s the care the filmmaker takes to present this crazy, intentionally uncontrollable scenario. Rugna treats his audience with respect, giving them the freedom to put many of the puzzle pieces together for themselves without too much expository nonsense muddying the water.
The idea is that, just outside of town in rural Argentina, ranch hands Pedro and Jimi discover a mutilated corpse that then leads them to a squatting Indigenous family they’ve allowed to live on the land for some time. The problem? One of them is possessed by a demon, and the dismembered body was the remains of a special type of exorcist who was on their way to “dispose” of the infected individual.
This is only the setup for the carnage to come, however, as Pedro and Jimi are convinced by a third party to help move the diseased corpse off of the ranch so it will become someone else’s problem. But this doesn’t work. As the horrific evil aching to be born sends out psychic impulses — bending animals, children, and even a few adults to its will — the brothers make a futile attempt to run away from the problem before it can kill them, their elderly mother, or Pedro’s children (or his ex-wife, for that matter).
For a while, all of this is slightly reminiscent of Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead, in which society slowly spirals out of control as a supernatural plague descends upon a town, leading to increasingly disquieting acts of violence and bloodletting. But things quickly move into territory that’s similar to Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child? or Tom Shankland’s The Children, in that many of the youngsters Pedro and Jimi run across are on the verge of becoming psychotically lost to the growing evil that’s reaching out its hypnotic tendrils to control them.
There’s also a wise and world-weary specialist who gets thrown into the mix (if one needed more similarities to The Exorcist), her affection for Jimi forcing her to take action even when she’d rather not get involved.
Rugna doesn’t shy away from taking things to the extreme. This is a bleak road trip, and even if Pedro and Jimi felt they were doing the right thing early on, they’re still going to be forced to pay for their actions in the worst ways imaginable. No one is spared. Absolutely no one at all. Children are bitten into pieces. Loving — if terrified — couples hack themselves up with an axe because they feel as if they have to. Husbands run down their own wives when the hands gripping the steering wheel are no longer their own.
The filmmaker has created a harsh world, but also a believable one. It is a place where religion has begun to rot away into insignificance. A land where those who are supposed to be in power (like the police) are knowingly impotent to do anything about what is happening. An environment where ancient beliefs in the supernatural dos and don’ts are an everyday way of life passed down from one generation to the next.
Events do get a little fragmented and frantic during the last act. Pedro and Jimi split up for a large portion of the climax, and only one of them actually has anything to do, while the other ends up nothing more than a wide-eyed observer to all the disgusting butchery that’s destroying everything around them. Also, while I do love that Rugna doesn’t try to explain his demonic mythology down to the last detail, some of it is still a little too vague for its own good, and this ultimately diluted my emotional connection to the material, especially right at the end.
But When Evil Lurks got under my skin. I felt dirty after watching it, almost as if my entire body was coated in metaphorical dirt, phlegm, and blood, and the hair of those consumed by this detestable malevolence was unnervingly stuck in my own throat. Rugna has manufactured a one-of-a-kind descent into madness that’s repugnantly extraordinary. I may never watch the film again, but that does not make me any less impressed.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 3½ (out of 4)