Evilspeak (1981)

First published, a long, long time ago, by Movie Gazette

You might not know his name, but I guarantee that you will recognise Clint Howard’s face. With his indefinably odd looks, he is, like Steve Buscemi, Danny Trejo and Tony Shalhoub, a memorable ‘character actor’ doomed forever to play sleazeball antagonist or goofy buddy to some more chiselled, better known superstar – and this is exactly what Clint has done in his countless television appearances and well over one hundred films – some of which have been directed by his (inevitably) more famous brother, Ron ‘Happy Days’ Howard. In short, Clint Howard is one of Hollywood’s unsung heroes, and the opportunity afforded by this re-release of 1981’s Evilspeak to see one of his few leading rôles should be welcomed by all those who like to root for the little guy – not least because the film, a satisfying blend of Revenge of the Nerds and satanism, sees our Clint teaching his enemies the consequences of underestimating his special talents.

In the middle ages, a Spanish priest named Esteban (Richard Moll) was exiled to the east coast of the Americas where he erected a chapel before being burnt at the stake for Satanic practises, vowing one day to return. Cut to the present day (although by that I mean the now ancient period known as the early 1980s), and Stanley Coopersmith (Clint Howard) is an awkward, sensitive orphan admitted to West Andover Military Academy as part of a mandatory welfare programme. Bullied by his fellow-students and brutalised by the staff, Coopersmith is in a kind of hell, having endlessly to carry out punishment details that include slopping out the muddy pigsties and clearing the basement of the Academy’s old chapel. Yet when he finds Esteban’s pentagram-festooned book in a secret crypt of the chapel and types its Latin text into one of those new-fangled gizmos known as computers (here making their first apearance in horror cinema), Esteban communicates with him from across the ether, promising the keys to the kingdom of Satan’s magic. Soon, with the help of a black mass, Esteban’s mighty sword, and a herd of ravenous swine, Coopersmith is wreaking unholy vengeance on all his tormentors.

Set, like Damien: Omen II (1978) and the later Child’s Play 3 (1991), in a boys’ military academy, Evilspeak combines the theological discourse of The Exorcist (1973) with the supernatural teen empowerment of Carrie (1976), but also features the kind of gratuitous nudity and gorily grotesque deaths that would come to characterise Eighties horror. The computer effects are lo-fi enough to satisfy anyone nostalgic for the pre-Macintosh era, there is a priest (Joseph Cortese) who regularly utters lines like “The good Lord doesn’t want you out of uniform, and neither do I”, and there is an ending left wide open for a sequel which was fated, tragically, never to be made. Still, once you have seen Clint Howard smiting fellow teens as he floats in mid-air bathed in eerie light, it is an image, no less ridiculous than terrifying, that is likely to stay with you forever.

Summary: In this likeable Eighties military academy shlockhorror, the put-upon protagonist quite literally finds the devil in his details.

Anton Bitel