The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
Demián Rugna’s gory latest diabolically plays by its own rules
Fantastic Fest is a titan of a genre film festival, and every year, my standouts tend to be the films that weaponize their genres by blending them to make something new and memorable. Several years ago, Demián Rugna shocked fest-goers with the wild ride of Terrified, which attempted to reinvent haunted house films and anthologies by focusing on a case of specters taking over an entire Buenos Aires neighborhood. Now, the Argentinean auteur returns with When Evil Lurks, a veritable kitchen-sink horror film that opens wearing inspirations like The Exorcist and Evil Dead on its sleeves before blowing the barn doors off our expectations of what a possession film can do and how it goes about doing so.
Set in a world that’s seemingly abandoned the idea of churches altogether in the wake of viral possessions, rancher brothers Pedro and Jimmy (Ezequiel Rodríguez and Demián Salomón) discover that an ailing neighbor has become one of “the rotten,” and that a professional exorcist has turned up very much bisected on the property. Trying to follow the rules of how to dispose of the possessed, the brothers and the landowner drag the rotten from their home and abandon him out in the remote countryside. However, Pedro’s attempts to protect his alienated family from the spread of evil instead bring possession to their doorstep…now, Pedro and Jimmy must run like hell before a fated apocalyptic conclusion threatens to swallow everything in its path.
Rugna’s nasty-as-hell followup to Terrified is a ruthless road movie that isn’t afraid to destroy anything in its path on the way to showing its audience a great time. Telegraphed via multiple early bloody curveballs, Rugna quickly decrees that almost nothing is sacred in When Evil Lurks–from the smallest animals and kids to the largest adults and vehicles. The scope of the film is also far greater than Terrified, quickly jettisoning a contained ranch locale for multiple packed neighborhoods, tucked away estates, and the creepiest rural school, all hinting at a larger universe that’s already tried and failed to reckon with the realities of demons running amok. To ground us, Rugna and his creative team efficiently establish the rules by which his characters attempt to live–namely how any direct acts of violence, especially using guns, against the “rotten” are forbidden, lest even more dire consequences occur. However, the sheer unpredictability of how effective these rules may be when combating said evil makes When Evil Lurks a supremely stressful watch–even as Rugna’s deliberate subversion results in some of the film’s most repulsive belly laughs.
Boy howdy, is When Evil Lurks hilarious in precisely the ways that’d make more polite society run screaming down the aisles. Elaborate sight gags involving axes, goats, cars, digested bodies, small children, dogs, and an even longer laundry list of victims and perpetrators offer anything in When Evil Lurks an equal opportunity for gleeful dismemberment. However, Rugna never loses sight of the emotional toll all of this madness is taking on his cast, especially Pedro. The greater his body count rises, the more unhinged yet determined Pedro becomes in the name of keeping those who are left safe from diabolical harm. With how seriously the violence in the film is taken, Rugna can have things both ways–in that the plentiful gore can reach Evil Dead levels of absurdity but still have a serious emotional impact on the characters it affects.
Upending myriad expectations regarding possession films and general decency, When Evil Lurks is a gut-churning good time that still manages to pack in a bitingly cynical emotional wallop. Rugna’s film is bleak and unrelenting, but it recognizes that nothing in a hopeless-as-hell universe can stop us from finding a dark chuckle among sheer chaos.
When Evil Lurks had its United States premiere at Fantastic Fest 2023. IFC Films will open the film in theaters on October 6th, followed by a streaming premiere on Shudder.