When Evil Lurks gripped me far more tightly than Terrified, Argentinian writer-director Demián Rugna once again displaying his talent at crafting unnerving imagery but now offering more in the way of worldbuilding, narrative, and emotional investment in characters to deliver a brutal, nihilistic horror film that will satisfy those who are into that sort of thing and traumatize those who aren’t. Like Talk to Me, it’s got a fresh new take on demonic possession, but unlike that film’s more obvious metaphor, this one has an idea so cool and horrifying I’m surprised I haven’t seen it done before.
Most possession horror treats possession as an extraordinary event that occurs to a single person. Rugna, however, posits a world that feels almost post-apocalyptic, where demonic possession is common enough that the police don’t want to deal with it, but uncommon enough that you as an individual might still find it extraordinary when you witness your first possessed one. Which is what happens to brothers Pedro and Jimmy after they investigate some mysterious gunshots in the middle of the night—I love that this film wastes no time, its plot kicking off immediately from the opening scene, the entire rest of the film occurring because Pedro and Jimmy heard some mysterious gunshots in the middle of the night.
This is one of those films that’s best to go in knowing nothing about it because Rugna, as was clear from Terrified, likes to just throw the audience into a world and let them figure out what’s going on and why. There are certain approaches to genre that really appeal to me, and they’re opposites. One is where the film exists in a very heightened world and simply asks you to accept that it’s quite different from our own. The other is where the film exists in a very grounded world that integrates the genre element into it so seamlessly and matter-of-factly that there’s almost an element of cognitive dissonance because the world is too close to our own. This film does the latter brilliantly, and so we learn the rules of this world by observing what the characters who know the rules of this world say and do. (And Rugna’s kind enough to give us a scene where a character literally lists the rules of this world and a scene where a character provides a bit of backstory about the origins of this world.)
Rugna doesn’t explain everything, but he explains just enough to be able to follow what’s going on without demystifying the supernatural horror. There’s no sound effect or visual effects to indicate when people are possessed, for instance. You just…know. Because they are…off. And also they will violently kill someone. That’s usually a good sign they’re possessed.
Once things start going bad, they just get…worse and worse, as Pedro and Jimmy attempt to escape with their family. And people weren’t kidding, this movie gives no fucks. Don’t get attached to anyone. But also do, because no one feels disposable here! I actually cared about the fucking characters, unlike in Terrified. Ezequiel Rodriguez and Demián Salomon have good older brother/younger brother chemistry, and I spent the entire movie waiting for something bad to happen to one or both of them.
The film establishes early on how few fucks it gives and what lines it’s willing to cross, so that keeps things niiiiiice and tense for the rest of the movie. Although to be honest, from the way people were talking about this movie, I was expecting a lot worse. Rugna’s violence is vicious and unexpected, and he gives some gore but, again, not as much as I expected from what I’d heard. It’s the sort of movie where you think you see more than you actually see because the impact is just so hard.
And he’s operating on a psychological level as well, evoking the supernatural dread of the demon’s ultimate goal, the eerie hopelessness of seeing or hearing a loved one possessed by a demon, and the uncanny spookiness of creepy fuckin’ children. This is an intentionally distressing film, and Rugna knows what he’s doing. God, the precise and controlled camera work here is so masterful, and Pablo Fuu’s score really adds to the atmosphere.
The film does make a couple of missteps. One of Pedro’s sons, Jair, is nonverbal autistic, and I’ll admit I just assume any portrayal of a nonverbal autistic character in a movie, especially a horror movie, is offensive in some way because, you know, film history. Here, the character himself seems fine until it becomes clear the only reason he’s autistic is so the film can play with the intersection of autism and demonic possession in this world, which veers into Magical Autism territory…until it doesn’t? I don’t know, feels like the film still could have gotten to the ending it wanted without being another horror movie that’s not great about disability.
And speaking of that ending, I did like the resolution of the demon storyline, but the denouement/punchline relies on characters somehow…forgetting about another character until it’s relevant. There’s a bit of messiness in the second half for sure compared to the expert build of the first half.
When Evil Lurks delivers on the visceral horror of demonic possession, but it has more than blood and guts on its mind. There’s a lot to unpack with regards to what the possession represents—one character compares it to a disease, and indeed a lot of the individual and community reactions do mirror reactions to communicable disease—and what the construction of this world is meant to say about our own. It seems telling, for instance, that you’re not supposed to use firearms on a possessed one. Rugna does not find much light in this world—and definitely not electric ones, which produce some subtle shadow effects I wanted more of yet almost found scarier for the fact that the film didn’t call attention to them—but that doesn’t mean he’s not trying to shine a light on something or other. And after this movie, you just might want to keep the lights on.