When Evil Lurks (Cuando acecha la maldad) seen at the Imagine Fantastic Film Festival 2023
It is a principle that will be familiar to farmers everywhere, including those in this remote rural backwater of Argentina – but father-to-be Armando, though himself a farmer, has something more metaphorical in mind than the practicalities of agriculture. For after hearing shots coming at night from Armando’s property, his neighbours the Yazurlo brothers – Pedro (Ezequiel Rodriguez) and Jimmy (Demián Salomon) – discover a corpse (or more precisely, half a corpse) in the woods, and then learn that Uriel (played by Pablo and Gonzalo Galarza, and voiced by Sebastian Berta Muñiz), the adult son of another neighbour (Isabel Quinteros), has been lying for a year, bedbound and bloated in his own rot, while his mother patiently awaits a State-appointed Cleaner to come exorcise him of the demon that has possessed him. That Cleaner was evidently ambushed on his way there and, amid gunfire, sliced in two by a sharp instrument.
There had been similar outbreaks of ‘the rotten’ in the past, although typically in more urban areas, and the State has certain painstaking protocols in place to deal with them – but Armando, terrified for his pregnant wife and unborn child, decides to take matters into his own hands, and recruits Pedro and Jimmy to help him get the rotting Uriel as far from their village as possible before the stinking, suppurating patient can give birth to a destructive devil. Yet things do not go as planned, and the more these characters try to save their loved ones and themselves, the further they spread the rot from within.
“Churches are dead, ma’am! Dead,” Pedro tells Uriel’s praying mother. Later Mirtha (Silvina Sabater) – a pastor’s daughter and Jimmy’s ex who has long experience with the rotten – will similarly insist: “God is dead and the times of churches ended quickly.” Indeed, while the threat of a coming apocalypse hangs over everything, there is also the sense that this is already a quietly post-apocalyptic landscape – and while most possession films, from William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) on to its countless imitators, build their narratives upon crises of faith, When Evil Lurks distinguishes itself by unfolding in a secular world where there is no organised religion to act as a counterforce to the devil’s influence, and where pandemonium is kept at bay only by the State’s slow bureaucracy, by arcane tools, and by strict adherence to a set of arbitrary yet effective rules (including prohibitions on the use of firearms and electrical light). Here the gun, far from acting as deterrent or defence, serves only to amplify and expedite an already rapidly deteriorating situation.
Perhaps the closest analogue for this study in human emptiness is Bryan Bertino’s barnyard bleakfest The Dark and the Wicked (2020), with its similarly unforgiving tone of despair and dread. In the absence of a divine apparatus, the putrescent power that takes possession of these characters can only instantiate the personal and the psychological. For they expose and aggressively exacerbate existing fissures in Pedro’s broken family life (he is bitterly divorced, and separated from his children), and let the members destroy and devour each other in a graphic expression of simmering guilt, resentment and animosity already lurking beneath the surface.
Theologians have long had a problem reconciling the existence of a benevolent, all-powerful deity with a world of suffering and evil. When Evil Lurks comes at this conundrum from a different angle: what might evil signify in a godless world? This question is viscerally staged through the implosion of a family which, in racing to undo past mistakes, just keeps making things worse. There is also grotesque gore and surreal incident, as Rugna once again, like with his earlier Terrified (Aterrados, 2017), admits into this real, all too recognisable world the irrational and the incomprehensible, and – in a taboo long associated with horror – lets children as well as adults be the conduit for evil. For here, once you start looking for it, the rot is everywhere and runs deep inside.
strap: Demián Rugna’s post- and pre-apocalyptic chiller imagines the demonic dissolution of the family in a godless world
© Anton Bitel