Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Evilspeak (1981)

I’ve often said, and I maintain that I’m correct in this, that I have never been what anyone would consider cool.  I don’t say this to be humble or to be self-effacing or to be hip by being square.  I say it because this has been the accumulation of my experiences in my life.  I am too antiestablishment for establishment people.  I am too establishment for antiestablishment people.  I am too conservative for liberals.  I am too liberal for conservatives.  I am too smart for the low brows.  I am too dumb for the high brows.  Hell, I rode a skateboard for a few years and never even learned to Ollie (yeah, I was that kid).  Consequently, it has always been a very rare thing for me to feel like I truly belong anywhere, and so I’m usually not comfortable in most public situations (that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it).  Don’t misunderstand; I don’t think that this makes me unique in any way, shape, or form (if anything, it should simply make me average, but our own problems are always bigger and crummier than other people’s, right?).  In fact, I think the vast majority of us have felt this way at one time or another, and it is precisely the reason why we love films about underdogs and about outcasts taking revenge on their tormentors.  Even people who have always seemingly been “on top” enjoy movies like these, because deep, deep down (cue the Danger: Diabolik soundtrack) they have insecurities on which these films touch.  Plus, the very act of growing up ensures that, at some point in their youth, damned near everyone has felt less powerful than someone else.  Movies like Eric Weston’s Evilspeak resonate with that ingrained, possibly even buried, crack in people’s psyches.  If you’re human, you identify on some level with characters like Stanley Coopersmith (Clint Howard).  You probably haven’t gone to the extremes that he and his classmates do, however, but you understand why these events transpire.

Lorenzo Esteban (Richard Moll) is your average sixteenth century heretic who gets drummed out of Spain for turning his flock on to Satanism and human sacrifices (and who immediately performs a black mass in protest).  Via a pretty clever form cut we are transported to contemporary California, where the boys of the West Andover Military Academy have lost yet another soccer match because Stanley (whom they call “Cooperdick”) is incompetent at the sport (and having nothing at all to do with their goalie being absolutely awful).  Stanley endures the steady stream of threats and abuse, both emotional and physical, from his classmates and superiors in equal measure as best he can.  Inevitably, he comes upon the writings of Esteban in the school basement (maybe sub-basement, but who’s counting?), and, with the help of a purloined school computer, translates the how-to manual for his occult revenge.

The interesting thing that Evilspeak does is it incorporates the then-burgeoning world of computers (or at least I personally knew of very few people who owned a home PC at that time) with the world of occult horror.  In this filmic world, as in so many, technology becomes conflated with evil, even though Stanley’s computer is merely a tool, a conduit for Esteban, not an active participant in any flagitious behavior.  That said, it becomes a metaphor (not the most cogent in the way that it’s handled in the film, but still…) for technology in modern life.  In much the same way that science fiction films of the Fifties and into the Sixties warned us not to meddle with nature because of the dire results to be wrought, this film warns us that technology, for as much as it makes certain things in our lives easier (translating black mass rituals, for example), also presents us with additional temptations that, if allowed to go unchecked, could consume our lives.  Bring this notion into the twenty-first century.  A great many people today can’t go even a day without their computers, their smartphones, and so forth.  Rather than engage in actual human conversations, many kids have abbreviation-loaded chats (even when sitting inches from the person they’re talking with) where any conflicts are devoid of actual discomfort because of the disconnect inherent in the medium.  Naturally, this makes neither texting nor these kids “evil.”  But what it does do is insidiously detaches them from the real world where real people deal with real emotions and real actions carry real weight.  My polemic out of the way, Stanley untethers from the normative world in a similar way through his interaction with Esteban in the computer.  What starts off for him as a tool to help with a school project becomes a cookbook for evil, and it becomes Stanley’s obsession and his downfall.

Bearing in mind my opening paragraph, I feel that Evilspeak also posits evil (or alternately Satanism) as being a form of individuality (even though in this case it’s, you know, bad and leads to things like slaughter, madness, and such).  There are three people at the academy who don’t traditionally fit in: Stanley, his one friend Kowalski (Haywood Nelson of What’s Happening fame) who is seemingly the sole black student at the school, and Jake (Lenny Montana of The Godfather fame) who is the lowly, shirtless, neckerchieved cook who befriends Stanley.  You could argue that Sarge (R.G. Armstrong) is in the same class as Jake, but Sarge was in the military prior to his current state, and he sides with the others against Stanley, so this makes him an establishment figure (or at least moreso than it does Jake).  All of the other characters are conformists.  The very idea of setting the film in a military academy explicitly points to this idea.  Characters from Colonel Kincaid (Charlie Tyner) to Coach (Claude Earl Jones) to Reverend Jameson (Joe Cortese) are the ruling class.  They tolerate people like Kowalski and Jake because they are useful in some way (Jake cooks, and I don’t know what Kowalski’s saving grace is, but he must have one for the students and faculty to refrain from punishing him like they do Stanley).  For this same reason, they despise Stanley.  Stanley can’t even get out of his own way, often tripping, dropping his books, and so forth.  Whatever he attempts, he flubs.  Because Stanley can’t conform (not won’t; he tries and fails, and this is unacceptable), he is left with no respite from his abusers than to turn to evil.  Under Esteban’s computerized influence, Stanley finds something that he can do.  He distinguishes himself from the others at the school (even while aligning himself with a drift of pigs [Esteban’s spirit animal apparently]), and in this distinction he makes himself more powerful than all of them.  For a time.

Evilspeak is the sort of film in which almost nothing happens between kill scenes (unless you count electro-Esteban messing around with all kinds of computer-inspired animations and typographic designs).  As a result, you find yourself asking questions you really shouldn’t be asking of a film of this nature and picking up on the logic gaps and plot holes that run rampant throughout the whole thing.  For example, how do Bubba (Don Stark) and his cohorts find out about Stanley’s puppy without having seen it or heard about it (since I’m almost positive neither Jake nor Stanley would have told them)?  What school has a bikini pageant (dubbed “Miss Heavy Artillery,” get it?) for its students, even if it is a military academy?  How did absolutely no one ever find out about Esteban’s chamber and ancient apothecary, especially Sarge who’s been sleeping practically on top of it for years?  What was the purpose of the scenes with Mrs. Caldwell (Sue Casey) being escorted around the campus except to show us that she’s Bubba’s mother (a useless bit of information that is never paid off or brought up again).   

Speaking of characters, the ones in this movie are completely undeveloped.  If Kowalski and Stanley are such good friends, why do they never hang out together?  The adult bullies are irrationally cruel and don’t have a sympathetic bone in their bodies.  The student bullies are arguably even worse.  Kincaid’s secretary Miss Friedemeyer (Lynn Hancock) at least serves the purpose of getting naked during the film, but we still spend an inordinate amount of time watching her try to pry the medallion off of Esteban’s journal (assumedly because she thinks it’s either shiny/pretty and/or worth some money), and we learn nothing about her as a person.  Everyone is strictly in this to get to the big finale (or die beforehand).  Jones states in an interview on the Scream Factory disc that the film is a comedy, and I suppose that’s a good possibility, because it is so over the top, you can’t take any of it seriously.  However, if it was actually intended to be funny, I didn’t find much at which to laugh (this seems to be a trend in my moviegoing experience of later).  By that same token, the mean streak running through the film would make any intentional laughs uneasy.  The film is still interesting as a curiosity, and there are some standout segments (Miss Friedemeyer, I’m looking at you), but its deficiencies and that the filmmakers allow the audience the free time to ponder its deficiencies really drag it down.

MVT:  The build up to Stanley’s vengeance is the name of the game, and it is long and grueling.  The filmmakers put the cherry on top with the final insult, and I have to admit, by that point I wanted all of these pricks dead, too.

Make or Break:  The finale cuts loose in a big way, and it is oh-so-satisfying watching these jerks get their gruesome comeuppance.  Incidentally, the moment with the crucifix in the chapel scared the ever-loving shit out of me as a child.

Score:  6/10

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