When Evil Lurks (2023) Directed by Demián Rugna
The Nietzschean metaphor, “God is dead” – the absolute, universal loss of moral truths and the crumbling of traditional religious authorities – has never felt so virulent and creepy as in this pitiless Argentine horror that unnervingly ruminates on modern society at its most deleterious; a critical state that plagues both the rapacious, advanced capitalism of the first world and the corrupt, fledgling pseudo-prosperity of the third world. What in flesh and blood purports to be a visceral film of diabolical possession, the conceptual depths behind its putrescent, inhuman façade incarnate an indomitable, acrimonious behemoth – a vitriolic machine – that seizes upon the absurdities of the genre and manipulates them with trenchant gusto to fashion demonological hokum into a disconcerting, inimical, apocalyptic vision of modernity being swallowed up by its own fears, arrogance, and ignorance. Demian Rugna’s When Evil Lurks possesses a contemplative coldness and anger that allows its system of supernatural horror filmmaking to never be judged as such, but rather to be admired for its violent severity, which is unmistakably fatalistic in its determination to shred all hopeful luminosity; clearly, it owes its satanic splendor to the great representations of the genre, films which it humbly eulogizes, but the noxious materials it employs are unparalleled in their effectiveness in possessing you not with demons but with a social rigor that proves transcendent in its remorseless capacity to inculcate pessimism rather than a humanitarian awareness. In essence, given the contemporary context, this is one of the most essential horror films of the 21st century. It is the film that 2023 desperately needed, and here it is.
Although the common tropes of evil possession cinema are relevant to the story’s proceedings, the superstitious folklore is even more crucial. Demian Rugna, first and foremost, is more of a realist director than a romantic one, and thanks to that anti-lyrical stance on life he conceives the plot as a terrifying speculation. What if all those religious myths that oppress us with guilt and fear were really true? Rugna’s film has a very disturbing exemplification of what would happen if that last theological question were answered with verisimilitude. The plot breathes the air of a formidable mythological yarn that could come out of any monotheistic literature, the kind that shows you the dangers of defying or underestimating evil. And what we witness here transpires with such a plausible interpretation of these chimerical facts in practice but fiercely tangible in theory that I would dare to suggest that if the existence of the metaphysical evil of the demons existed, a diabolical hecatomb on earth would look exactly as it does in this film. It is enough to savor a bit of the sour and threatening beginning of When Evil Lurks to make you feel that you are in the middle of the material rationality of the natural world and the immaterial irrationality of the supernatural world leaving you without the faculty to distinguish which is the one, we really live in. The demoralized scenario that is introduced is a rural one, far from the urbanism of the big cities, Pedro (Ezequiel Rodriguez) and his brother Jimi (Demián Salomon) live in those remote areas. During the night they both hear gunshots in the nearby woods, so they go to investigate what it is about. What they find is a gruesome scene, a body cut in two of an anonymous person. Pedro and Jimi, perplexed and intrigued to know what the hell happened that night, go to a poor home nearby where a woman lives with her two children, the oldest an obese man in an uncommonly horrible physical state on the verge of death. Apparently, he is infected by a supernatural being, a demon is forming in his body waiting for the precise moment to be engendered. When a person has the misfortune of presenting these symptoms, they call him a “Rotten”. When Pedro and Jimi see that this woman’s son is one of these, they lose control and succumb to paranoia and a violent neurosis. The ingenuity of the narrative lies in its logical functions – folkloric phenomenology has its rules, and these present a series of ritualistic compromises that make the narrative always a speculative terror. For instance, these people who carry a demon within them cannot be killed with weapons, since taking their lives in that way causes the curse to proliferate.
For a post-2020 movie, the treatment of fiends possessing human bodies as if it were a multiplying lethal virus feels wildly allegorical; however, the script doesn’t use it that way but only taps into the traumatic post-pandemic psychology to flesh out its nihilistic manifesto even more dangerously. Predictably, all hell on earth breaks loose when Pedro and Jimi along with another landowner in the area decide to move the Rotten away from their land. They believe that banishing the evil will make it go away, but their negligent impulses make things even worse. In the midst of the macabre events there are endless curiosities that emerge, some of them very subtle. To begin with, the fact that the putrid man infected by the demonic evil is someone of miserable socio-economic conditions, lower class and the one who spawned the perpetual damnation in the village is no coincidence. Perhaps this demon perverting the human anatomy is an embodiment of the prejudices embedded in the clash of social classes. Whether this is a figurative element premeditated by Demian Rugna or not, the contrast is there and pronounced even if it were a simple, incidental socio-political reference. On the other hand, it is evident the secularism that dominates in some of the characters – there is never a proclaimed atheism in them, but there is an abandonment of the religious institution – God has forsaken the people. Nevertheless, the religiosity that superstitions preach in the plot and above all in the fears of the characters, makes the supernatural experiences an overwhelming crisis of faith that will finally destroy them. Unbelievers will mistake this philosophical expression for a sermon, but in reality, it is an externalization of the perilous consequences that amorality can have in a culture that has been constituted with a morality that distinguishes good from evil. Pedro in his desperation to save his family from this possessive curse becomes morally blind; he and his brother begin to distrust their own judgments.
The tenets of When Evil Lurks are intensely compelling because they take advantage of contemporary vulnerabilities to create a terror as false as it is true. The dichotomy it presents takes us away from objective or straightforward explanations, yet the urgency Demian Rugna has with dramatizing this story of possession as a metaphorical harbinger of our hazy future is palpable. All in all, recent horror films have leaned towards being juvenile rhetoric that aims to shock with traumatic evocations, this film refuses to embrace that facile, minimalist path and prefers to associate itself with the boldness of extreme, mature filmmaking. There are moments of startling malice that make for some of the fiercest set pieces I’ve seen in recent years. Yet it is not exactly its cinematic bravado that turns it into great cinema in the canonical concept of the word, but it is the vitality of its uncannily paced entertainment articulating miserabilism and contemporary concerns with such confidence and rawness that marks it out as distinctive and remarkable in the face of so many possession flicks. The whole experience is throbbing, there is an imminent danger that never lets you go, and if it does it is because you may not have been sufficiently attentive to the darkness of its abyss. To end on the same Nietzschean note with which I began, he said, “If you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” Frightening but eloquent stuff.