12 May 2017

In his youth, the heir to a billion dollar oil industry is plagued by vivid, harrowing dreams. Decades pass and he decides to turn those childhood nightmares into a reality - for viewers, that is. The reclusive heir spends thirteen years adopting the role of the Storyteller, using the empty rooms of his vast mansion to carefully craft a horror movie of his own twisted design. He builds intricate robots and animatronics, invents fancy camera rigs, and funds the entire venture from his own pocket. As months turn into years, the Storyteller finds himself wildly obsessed with completing his intricate tale... until one day, before the movie is complete, the heir's lifeless corpse is found lying on the cold floor of his quiet mansion.

If you're wondering where you can find the movie I've just described, I have some bad news. The above description isn't the synopsis of a white-knuckle thriller, or a chilling neo-noir detective story, or a fictitious psychological horror. It is, in fact, the very true and very strange story surrounding Andrew Getty and The Evil Within: the only horror movie he would ever get to make.

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In 2002, Andrew Getty, reclusive heir to the Getty fortune, set out to make a horror movie inspired by the array of dark nightmares that tormented him as a child. Getty oversaw every aspect of the film - from the intensive writing, directing and editing to the expensive sets he built by hand. The movie, originally titled The Storyteller, quickly became Getty's unhealthy obsession. He spent night and day stressing over the film to the point of maddening pedantry - constantly stopping and starting production, changing the cast and crew at the drop of a dime, and dedicating every waking moment to painstakingly tinkering with every conceivable facet of his wicked creation. In March of 2015, before completing the film, Andrew Getty died without warning, only to be found by his ex-girlfriend. Though initial reports would claim Getty had died from an ulcer-related gastrointestinal hemorrhage, the LA county coroner would later note that toxic amounts of methamphetamine were found in his body.

So exactly what the hell happened?

In short: stress. Two weeks prior to his death, Getty had filed a restraining order against the ex-girlfriend who would end up finding his body, Lanessa DeJonge. Getty had stated that he suffered from a serious medical condition, and warned that DeJonge was causing him stress which could put him at "grave risk." But the stress didn't end there. Michael Luceri, who would end up editing and producing The Evil Within in Getty's absence, pointed out that Getty's intense obsession with his passion project had become far too overwhelming. Add all of this to the claim by Getty's friends that he had a vicious penchant for drug use - which, of course, is where the aforementioned meth comes into play - and it's easy to see that Getty's heap of life-threatening stress only snowballed until the inevitable.

Severe drug abuse, rampant obsession, and perpetually escalating stress of a physical, mental, and emotional nature. These were the demons that would lead to Andrew Getty's untimely demise.

Bearing all of that in mind, when you watch The Evil Within you are watching a horror story within a horror story, fifteen years in the making. Which begs the question: does the movie live up to its tragic legacy?

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Having already known about the eerie story behind the film, I opted to watch The Evil Within in a fittingly eerie environment: well after midnight, home alone, lights out. The film started off good enough - an effectively creepy recollection of a dream, featuring some of the elaborate sets Getty had constructed. And those sets were kind of spectacular. They looked as if they had crawled out of a Tim Burton/Henry Selick production, an aesthetic that would continue to grace the rest of the film. This is definitely one of the most significant strengths of The Evil Within: the sets - along with the practical effects - are insanely impressive for the debut film of someone who's never dabbled in motion pictures before.

The script is beautifully composed in the opening scene. Our narrator, Dennis - voiced/played by Frederick Koehler - speaks with a rhythmic poetry that is as elegant as it is haunting. Of course, this makes it all the more jarring when we are introduced to the physical Dennis: a mentally-challenged young man seen chowing down on a chicken leg. Koehler's portrayal of Dennis is reminiscent of Tugg Speedman's Simple Jack from Tropic Thunder; he goes, as Kirk Lazarus would say, "full retard" at times. His is a performance that often borders on being offensive, which is the unfortunate side effect of a neurotypical actor playing a mentally-challenged character. The juxtaposition of this character and the opening's well-spoken narrator is a little hard to swallow (although it will make sense later), and it pains me to say that Dennis more than likely will not grow on you.

Sharing the screen with Frederick Koehler are Sean Patrick Flanery of The Boondock Saints fame and Dina Meyer, who looks just as good as she did in Starship Troopers and acts just as poorly. Actually, all of the acting throughout The Evil Within is subpar at best, the actors often managing to convince you that they're really the cast of a Tommy Wiseau picture: first off, the "humor," of which there is thankfully little, is very The Roomesque in that it might not be entirely intentional; and second, conversations tend to echo in the uncanny valley, consistently detached and nonhuman in a disturbingly uncomfortable way. Such conversations are either too long, too repetitive, or feature misplaced responses that don’t feel organic in their given context. This admittedly overwhelming disjointedness can be pardoned, I suppose, considering that the movie was, after all, unfinished and had to be completed without the guide of its engineer and creator. Due to such disarray, however, the plot can be difficult to follow, but not too much effort is required to pick up the scattered pieces and put it all together.

Dennis is tormented by nightmares - supposedly based on Getty's own - wherein he is stalked and physically violated by a deathlike demon played by beloved horror alum Michael Berryman. Berryman's demon, credited simply as "Cadaver," will undoubtedly bring Freddy Krueger to mind, as the two share a penchant for both dream-torture and theatrics. More specifically, the Cadaver is reminiscent of the Freddy from A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge in that the demon intends on using Dennis to commit savage acts of murder. Freddy's Revenge essentially utilizes the same concept: the titular Freddy forces obnoxious teenager Jesse Walsh to carry out his dirty work. The key difference between the two movies is that unlike Freddy's Revenge, The Evil Within isn't a disappointing cringe-fest.

Uh. Sort of.

Yeah, the cringe is there, and yeah, it's pretty bad. As stated earlier, The Evil Within has this gnawing tendency to feel like a Tommy Wiseau production. A handful of scenes are jarringly short, drag on for too long, or feel completely out of place in that painfully awkward Wiseau way where you, as the viewer, can't decide whether you should laugh or bury your head between the sofa cushions for a few years. Much of the dialogue unfortunately follows suit, including but certainly not limited to: that weird line the Boondock Saint delivers wherein he jokingly asks Diz what airplanes are called (and she falls for it), Dennis' ridiculous explanation for why he has tapes on taxidermy (and his brother falls for it), and the overall haphazardly developed relationship between... well, all of the characters. A lot is missing from this story. A lot. You might notice which parts Getty labored over and which parts he wasn't alive enough to oversee, but then you might begin to wonder which parts he was around for and subsequently fucked up.

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But none of this means that The Evil Within has to be a terrible movie. Too much of the flick is genuinely impressive and attractive for it to be terrible. The surreal visuals are dizzying in an almost Lynchian fashion; the tone legitimately feels like that of a dazed fever dream. Taking this into account, one could possibly argue that the aforementioned dialogue is intentionally schlocky as a means of matching the movie's overall weird, dreamlike tone. The practical effects - those animatronic puppets Andrew Getty spent so much time concocting - carry a charming 1980s vibe in that while they're definitely not of the highest quality, they are effective and well-crafted, particularly one visually striking monstrosity toward the end. On the flip side, however, the mostly chintzy visual effects are no more awe-inspiring than those of an early '00s TV movie, but once in a while they do provoke some effective imagery; the illusion of an infinite hallway created by two mirrors facing each other manages to offer a few good scares.

On the subject of scares, one of the finer aspects of The Evil Within is that it doesn't employ a single jump scare. Not one. The movie mostly scares through its eerie visuals, whether blatant or subtle; along with the creepy sets and practical effects, there's a slew of frightening imagery hiding in the background that may or may not chill you the same way a shadow out of the corner of your eye might. These are visuals that, days later, have stuck with me - not sending shivers down my spine or anything like that, but refusing to be anything less than vividly engraved in my memory. Think of the head-spinning in The Exorcist, or the chestburster from Alien: the two-to-three second fragments of a scene that you'll forever remember in brilliant detail. Whether such scenes in The Evil Within are good or bad, they definitely overflow with chilling memorable images. (Granted, it goes without saying that said images will never be as iconic as Linda Blair or the chestburster. But you already knew that.)

In case it wasn't already glaringly obvious, The Evil Within plays mainly as a metaphor for mental illness, more specifically schizophrenia. This is especially evident whenever Dennis communicates with the Cadaver through the aforementioned infinite hallway of mirrors and it looks as if he's talking to himself. Of course, the movie makes a far more obvious (and sometimes on-the-nose) statement about living with a developmental disability, but the hamfisted execution of that statement results only in a cluttered mess of what could have been both poignant and horrifying. Instead, we're given a degrading portrayal of mental disorder surrounded by bizarre conversations, oblivious characters, and a plot that might be half-decent were it not so obfuscated by its weakest links. While the shoddy acting and piss-poor dialogue can be excused, the absentmindedly mishandled theme of mental illness cannot. Getty tries to establish a connection with those afflicted with developmental disabilities, but fails tragically. Koehler's disabled Dennis rarely comes off as genuine, nor does his brother, whom we're supposed to believe has been taking care of Dennis all his life. Yet that never shows - all we get from Sean Patrick Flanery is a flatlining stock character who encapsulates an almost parodic patriarchal-big-brother motif and nothing more. And that's a huge problem with The Evil Within - the characters just aren't fleshed out enough to be remotely believable or relatable. This is, along with the poorly perpetrated mental illness theme, an issue far too obtrusive to be ignored.

But now let me take a moment to reiterate: the practical effects, man. The creepiness factor. The awesome set designs. Michael fuckin' Berryman. Don't let the admittedly biting rant above convince you that The Evil Within is without its shining moments, because it definitely shines in several departments. It's just that, unfortunately, the clouds are far darker. But amid the few scenes wherein those clouds part, everything's shiny.

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Despite its hopefully unintentional mistreatment of the subject, it's easy to see that the theme of mental illness in The Evil Within is deeply personal. The movie is at least semi-autobiographical, and that goes beyond the fact that it was loosely based on Getty's childhood night terrors. While he may not have been schizophrenic, Getty was clearly battling his own demons and struggling with personal issues, and at the risk of being an armchair psychiatrist, I think it's safe to say that he used The Evil Within to channel some of those dark thoughts. At some point it might even have been therapeutic for him. Maybe the powerful nightmares of his youth followed him into adulthood, seeping into reality as nightmares so often do, taking the form of multifaceted stressors and substance abuse and vigorous, deadly obsession. Or maybe Andrew Getty was simply a horror enthusiast with a story he'd never get the chance to sufficiently tell.

I don't know if I'm able to say with candor that The Evil Within is a good movie. I don't even think I want to say it. It's a mess, to be sure, and whether that mess was caused by the latter absence of Getty or the constant modifications he made or a hundred other reasons remains to be seen. It's not without its flaws, and the flaws are gaping, but something about the film makes it stand out. I'm not referring to the weird and tragic story behind the movie, but rather the endless personal devotion that went into creating it. Even though Andrew Getty's compassion may be misguided in some respects, his passion is as authentic and industrious as it is abundant. It radiates from the artistic, dreamlike sets we see not thirty seconds in. It hides amidst the nuanced terrors dimmed in the backdrop of Dennis' nightmares. It oils every cog and gear comprising the elaborate puppets and practical effects who breathe life into the scenes wherein life is otherwise lacking. On the whole, the film brings nothing new to the table, and it might even be a sloppy helping of corn with a side of dogshit. But in spite of its many weaknesses, The Evil Within is, in its own right, a special kind of movie.

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Brad Grandrino

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