When Evil Lurks (Cuando acecha la maldad)

Director: Demián Rugna
Screenplay: Demián Rugna
Stars: Ezequiel Rodríguez (Pedro), Demián Salomón (Jaime), Silvina Sabater (Mirtha), Luis Ziembrowski (Ruiz), Marcelo Michinaux (Santino), Emilio Vodanovich (Jair), Virginia Garófalo (Sabrina), Paula Rubinsztein (Sara)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2023
Country: Argentina / U.S.
When Evil Lurks
When Evil Lurks

There is a scene in Demián Rugna’s brutal Argentinian horror film When Evil Lurks (Cuando acecha la maldad) that involves a dog. We see the dog at the beginning of the scene, and it is big and lovable family pet; its presence is a constant as the scene grows in intensity and becomes fraught with interpersonal conflict. At some point we see the dog, just a passing glance, and we note that something is wrong. And, for the rest of the scene, we are waiting for something bad to happen—we’re not sure what, but given how the film has unfolded up until this point, we know that really bad things can and will happen. And, when it does, it is a genuine shock: partially because of the suddenness, partially because of the way Rugna uses framing to suggest that nothing of much interest will happen in that particular shot, and partially because of its ferocity. And that, in essence, is the power of Rugna’s film. Despite the film being cobbled together out of familiar genre tropes, he consistently finds ways to make it feel new and inventive and shocking and ghastly. He primes our expectations and then fulfills them in ways that we didn’t quite expect. Sometimes he pushes things further than they need to go, but one of the key essences of the horror genre—at least a certain subset of it—is excess.

The narrative unfolds over a couple of days in the remote Argentinian countryside, where we are introduced to two brothers, Pedro (Ezequiel Rodríguez) and Jaime (Demián Salomón), who discover the gruesome remains of a man on their property (let’s just say there is no way to identify him because the upper half of his body is completely gone) after hearing strange noises and gunshots the night before. They end up at the home of a woman, María Elena (Isabel Quinteros), and her teenage son, who rent from the neighboring landowner, Ruiz (Luis Ziembrowski). Sabrina informs them that the remains of the man they found was a “cleaner,” someone she had summoned to kill her son, which at first seems like a shocking bit of bad-mother horror until Pedro and Jimi see her son, and then they (and we) understand. The poor man is possessed by an evil spirit they refer to as a “rotten” that has completely distended and disfigured him into a corpulent, bed-ridden, pus-leaking monstrosity who is both horrific and distressingly sad. The problem is that not just anyone can kill the possessed man (and certainly not with a firearm), because to do so would unleash—or give birth to—something that could be described as pure evil.

As in all good horror stories, the authorities—in this case, the local police—are useless, as they refuse to deal with the problem. So, Pedro and Jaime approach Luis, the landowner, who panics at the sight of the possessed man and determines that the best thing to do is literally drag him out of his bed, put him in the back of his truck, and dump him somewhere off his land. The physical removal of the possessed man is both ghastly-gross and darkly comical, although it is immediately apparent that this is the wrong approach and will only make things worse. The dark humor of this misbegotten enterprise is really just misdirection, as things soon get much, more worse and much, much bloodier, especially after Pedro goes into the nearby town to pick up his elderly mother and then to the house of his estranged wife (Virginia Garófalo) and her new husband (Federico Liss) to retrieve his teenage son, Jair (Emilio Vodanovich), who is disabled due to severe autism. In When Evil Lurks, no one is safe from a horrible demise: not children, not pregnant women, not the elderly, not the disabled—and certainly not dogs or goats. Even after Pedro secures the assistance of Mirtha (Silvia Sabater), a local medium, there is no sense that anything will be set right.

In this regard, When Evil Lurks follows in a long line of modern horror movies in which evil is depicted as an unstoppable force that can only be briefly delayed before it fulfills its promise (think the ending of Rosemary’s Baby). And, while that would seem to make the film functionally nihilistic, there are enough glimpses of humanity and decency to suggest that the continued presence of goodness in the world might have some kind of an effect. Of course, it is difficult to sift out those moments from what is otherwise an unrelenting downward trajectory marked by an almost suffocating atmosphere of doom and regular punctuations of intense body horror and gore. When Evil Lurks is not a film for the faint of heart, but for those who are willing to stomach what it has to offer, it is an engaging dramatization of an eternal struggle.

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Overall Rating: (3)

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