One of those increasingly hard to find pre-fame Steven Spielberg TV gigs, one which didn't get the theatrical release afforded Duel (1971) so which is now consigned to relative obscurity. Back in the 1970s, as an impressionable young-ish child, this seemed to be the scariest thing ever - time hasn't been particularly kind to it, but there's still a lot to enjoy.
The cast, for starters, is excellent, full of TV staples turning in excellent work - The Night Stalker himself, Darren McGavin is his usual dependable self as the harassed husband, Dennis Weaver returns from Duel and is excellent, and Sandy Dennis again proves why she's one of the great forgotten gems of 70s film and TV. Ralph Bellamy pretty much steals the show however with a masterly turn reminiscent of his menacing performance in Rosemary's Baby (1968).
Dennis plays the increasingly frazzled Marge Worden who moves into a new home with her family (husband Paul (McGavin), son Stevie (Johnnie Whitaker) and daughter Laurie (Debbie and Sandy Lempert)). The farmhouse at first seems idyllic, but Marge soon comes to realise that they're not alone in the house - a demon is also in residence and Marge slowly loses her marbles as the demon tries to possess her.
The film very much has that early-70s atmosphere (which will act as a warning to some, a lure to others) and there's already some clear evidence of the directorial style that Spielberg was to bring to his theatrical work. He's aided no end by the wonderful cinematography of Bill Butler (who would later shoot Jaws (1975) with Spielberg) which never quite escapes the flat lighting common to many a 70s TV movie, but which spices things up no end with some unexpectedly agile camerawork. Not for Spielberg and Butler the lifeless photography that was the scourge of so many otherwise excellent TV movies - here, there's plenty of handheld work, unusual angles oddball pans and tracks. The fact that much of it takes place in broad daylight adds to the genuinely creepy ambience that Spielberg and Butler manage to conjure up.
The greatest surprise afforded by Something Evil is that it was written by Robert Clouse, the year before he embarked on his career as a martial arts specialist with such films as Enter the Dragon (1973), Black Belt Jones (1974), Game of Death (1978) and The Big Brawl (1980). Here, he seems a little restricted by both the TV medium and the requirements of the genre, resulting in a script that is a little sluggish in places.
Something Evil clearly had an influence on many of those film-makers who followed trying to do something new with the haunted house cliché. The Tobe Hooper directed, Spielberg produced Poltergeist (1982) is an obvious successor, though there are echoes of Something Evil in The Amityville Horror (both versions) and The Shining (1980).
In the wake of those films and the recent wave of exceptional Asian supernatural thrillers, Something Evil could seem a bit tame, but as mentioned earlier, there's still a lot to enjoy here - the glowing eyes at the window seems old-hat these days but I can distinctly remember being terrified by them when I first saw the film, and they still pack quite a punch today. The pulsing jars of red gunk that keep turning up around the house are as unsettling as they are bewildering, and the crying baby that haunts Marge at nights is well done. And the ending is actually quite unsettling and certainly unexpected. Something Evil won't appeal to those of you raised on the gorier 70s and 80s fare and Spielberg fans may well be disappointed by the lack of many of his signature touches.