A rewarding genre experiment in Another Evil

another-evilPhoto credit: Seattle International Film Festival

The recent surge in horror films scoring accolades and critical praise seems to have enabled a renewed energy around experimentation with the genre, yielding a provocative crop of films that have broadened the potential for horror’s tone, scope, and audience base. For instance, not many films can claim the descriptor “mumblecore comedy-horror,” save last summer’s Creep (2015). Taken at face value, this blend seems a counter-intuitive exercise: how could the understated naturalism of the former capitalize on the visceral thrills of the latter? Enter Another Evil (2016), the feature debut from Eastbound & Down and Silicon Valley scribe Carson D. Mell. Like Creep, the film follows the antics of two men in a mountain home faced with unnatural circumstances and a conflict of interests that gives way to terror. Both serve as a sort of uncanny comedian/straight-man act that undercuts the laughs with a sense of dread. While the earlier film may have suffered from a sense that the spooky trappings were tacked-on, Mell has dug deep into the emotional cores of the tonally varying genres and found an odd and thrilling common ground. And despite an occasionally plodding pace in the film’s set pieces, it goes to great lengths to establish a strong sense of architecture and aesthetic. Perhaps a somewhat detrimental preference for world-building over narrative is the lot of the debut filmmaker (see Robert Eggers’ uneven but affecting The Witch from earlier this year), but Mell’s stylistic voice is just clear enough (and his comedic voice just outrageous enough) to carry Another Evil away from the overwrought boredom that could have easily developed in this sort of experiment.

One of the key strengths in the film’s structure is the expertly crafted awkward chemistry between its leading duo. Steve Zissis plays Dan, a visual artist with a bit of a ghost problem at his mountain retreat/studio. After feeling dissatisfied with the non-confrontational advice of a schlubby New Age shaman (Dan Bakkedahl), Dan seeks a second opinion from the affable if slightly aggressive Os (Mark Proksch). Os’s invasive approach to exorcism has him staying in the mountains with Dan for a week and conducting a series of ghost-catching exercises. As in most haunted house films, the unnerving atmosphere gets thicker as the week wears on. But while the supernatural hangs over Another Evil, the film’s chills are drawn primarily from more terrestrial concerns like navigating another person’s desperate vulnerability. Proksch puts on a seriously good study in earnest absurdity (think Max von Sydow meets Dwight Schrute) and helps the film find its balance between cringe comedy and wincing in fear. And Zissis builds audience sympathy, even if his character isn’t exactly likable, from a solid deadpan foundation. So it’s understandable that Mell would want to give this pair lots of room to breathe, given the captivating potency of their uncomfortable interactions. But the laugh lines only surface from a substantial chunk of ambling dialogue that occasionally borders on the wrong side of hypnotic. Despite the tipping of scales towards scenery chewing, the film does have a command of aesthetic that pushes it into some intriguing territory. The team wisely leans on a variety of genre touchstones: the fleeting ghouls of Japanese horror, angular set designs that recall Caligari, rooms awash in “Giallo Red” neon, establishing shots that wind through domestic space à la The Conjuring. This sense of identity, coupled with excellent sound design and a budding sense for what builds tension, points to a filmmaker well on his way to carving out a space for cinema that rewards just as much as it befuddles.

Like the best examples from its more sinister parent genre, Another Evil is driven by epistemological mysteries concerning the source of its frights and asks the viewer to revel in its own uncertainty. In an emotionally wrought indie dramedy, the kind to which this film feels somewhat spiritually beholden, existential musings over careers and relationships can get tired and trite very quickly.  Thankfully, Mell finds fear in that ambivalence and imbues his story with some real narrative heft. These thrills, coupled with laugh-out-loud comedy of both cerebral and slapstick varietals, keep the viewer company through the lulls and produce a wickedly fun film to the end.

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