Fear No Evil (1981)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: September 24th, 2019
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Exploitation movies are inherently derivative. Less charitable folks would call them “rip-offs,” which might be fair, especially when a sense of familiarity begins to set and give the audience the impression that they’re watching the same old shit for the umpteenth time. We accept this as part of the system not only because we crave familiarity to some degree, but also because we know shocks to the system will inevitably come along to completely justify the trend. Case in point: Frank LaLoggia’s Fear No Evil, an unhinged 1981 joint that took inspiration from 70s Satanic Panic films before its director ran totally wild with the premise. Calling it an Omen “rip-off” is a disservice, primarily because it really wants to be all of the Omen movies with a dash of Carrie and evangelical hysteria for good measure. Most importantly, it’s done with such aplomb and reckless abandon that Fear No Evil ultimately lands in its own stratosphere; even though it’s certainly derivative, it’s also unlike just about anything else you’ve ever seen—and these are the sort of movies you live for.
Its story is nothing if not ambitious, as our narrator, the angel Raphael (John Holland) informs the audience that he and pair of other angels are locked into an eternal struggle with Lucifer (Richard Jay Silverthorn), who continues to take human form on Earth to usher in the apocalypse. A prologue reveals a not-so-final showdown between the archangel (here inhabiting the body of Father Damon) and the fiend that ends with the devil vanquished near the ruins of a church. Soon thereafter, a baby boy named Andrew is born to the Williams family somewhere in upstate New York. He cries relentlessly as a child, and an attempt to baptize him goes haywire when the baptismal font erupts with blood. The antichrist will do that.
The script then breezes through Andrew’s troubled childhood, which sees his parents’ marriage deteriorate as they reckon with their son’s troubling behavior. They go through the motions, doing their best to raise a normal child, only to see it go up in smoke. Even an attempt to throw Andrew a birthday party somehow ends with the cake falling to the floor and the mother suffering a traumatic head injury at the hands of the father. Again, you kind of expect this from the Antichrist.
Less expected is how Andrew (played for the remainder of the film by the weird, wiry Stefan Arngrim) “blossoms” into a modest, awkward antichrist during his high school years, where he’s surrounded by lecherous janitors, relentless bullies, and even a high-strung teacher who’s apparently carrying on an affair with a student. You’d be forgiven for believing most of these people deserve damnation. LaLoggia almost follows suit by depicting Andrew as an almost reluctant Lucifer struggling to grapple with his destiny: he’s a brilliant student but is doomed not to revel in his success because he must serve a higher purpose. Somewhere tucked away in the recesses of Fear No Evil is a weird, compelling character portrait of a tortured fiend whose adolescent hormones collide with his demonic duty. I Was a Teenage Antichrist seems like it’d be an apt title.
Fear No Evil is not that movie, though, not really.
Instead, a wild story continues to unravel around Andrew to reveal that one of his neighbors (Elizabeth Hoffman) isn’t just a kooky old lady living without modern comforts. No, she’s Mikhail, one of Raphael’s earthly companions, waiting patiently for the third of this trio, Gabrielle, to re-emerge on earth because the second coming is at hand. Her wait dovetails with a subplot involving a girl at school (Kathleen Rowe McAllen) that Andrew happens to have a crush on, and…actually, you know what? Just let me stop there. If you’ve seen LaLoggia’s Lady in White, it will come as no surprise to discover that the plot here rambles on, pivoting from one act to the next, continually shifting into a different type of movie with every step. Walking you through each of them would be tantamount to revealing nearly the entire movie, and trust me when I insist you don’t want that.
What you do want is to experience the madness of Fear No Evil yourself. Trust me when I say it would also be a disservice to let a second-hound account spoil you from its idiosyncratic charms. If you do need further convincing, just rest assured that it’s the type of movie where your brain insists none of it should work: the plot can charitably be called “elliptical” in nature, as certain plot points (like Andrew’s mother being held captive in a semi-vegetative state) are underdeveloped while others (like Andrew’s dad suddenly realizing his son is the devil and the subsequent emergence of Gabrielle) happen with whiplash-inducing speed.
Your heart, however, can’t help but delight at the bizarre tone, killer soundtrack, and the dozens of gonzo flourishes strewn throughout. Much of the film’s charm derives from the sensation that you don’t really know what the hell you’re going to get next. It’s sort of like surfing through a bunch of channels on late-night TV while drifting off to sleep and you’re not sure if what you’re watching is actually unfolding on the screen or in the deep recesses of your slumbering brain.
You get a little bit of everything here: Fear No Evil obviously takes a cue from those Satanic movies it’s aping, but LaLoggia filters it through the whimsical lens of fantasy pictures and apocalyptic Christian scare-mongering flicks all at once. Scenes involving Mikhail and Raphael take on an almost saccharine tone that I swear vaguely reminds me of the weirder Rankin-Bass holiday specials. Let me tell you, it’s really weird when this kind of stuff is butting up against a black magic ritual involving dog’s blood and zombies rising from the ground as a passion play unfolds on a nearby beach.
Between this and Lady in White, LaLoggia established a peculiar, singular vision of Rockwellian Upstate New York horror. While most of Fear No Evil is set during the early 80s, it often feels anachronistic and retro, almost as if LaLoggia were projecting his own cozy memories of a 50s/60s childhood onto the present day. A tender exchange between a kindly, small-town mailman and with his neighbor on her rural homestead crashes against a grungy high school scene scored by the likes of Patti Smith, The Ramones, and The Talking Heads, providing a quick snapshot of the tonal whiplash on display throughout the film.
Lurking within this high-fantasy silliness is also a genuinely disturbing streak of real-world horror; just as LaLoggia uses supernatural elements as an in-road to explore small-town racism in Lady in White, Fear No Evil takes an unexpected detour into the trauma of bullying when the school’s Tony, most ruthless punk (Daniel Eden), relentlessly targets Andrew. His harassment climaxes in an uncomfortable shower scene, where Tony forces himself on a bewildered, terrified Andrew, sparking the latter’s Satanic powers in a scene that will immediately recall the likes of Carrie, which is not surprising since most of Fear No Evil reminds you of something else. However, it’s no less disturbing here because it’s such a raw act of homophobia that almost convinces you that LaLoggia might have something more clever up his sleeve here other than sheer provocation.
But, like so many things in Fear No Evil, it can’t be said to really be about this moment; if anything, this is the incident that simply helps Andrew embrace his inner Satan in retribution. At least, that’s how it appears, given how that elliptical narrative careens into the third act hellraising, complete with the walking dead, the light of God, a crucified Jesus, and more. Arriving at that point is a bit bewildering because it feels like there’s at least a beat or two missing that explains why Andrew—who is mostly depicted as a soft-hearted, reluctant antichrist grappling with hormonal desires and immense powers—is suddenly all-in on ending the world. Likewise, the classmate who’s told she’s actually an angel meant to fend off the end-times is rightfully skeptical—until she isn’t. LaLoggia would kindly ask that you no dwell on such things, though, and simply enjoy the outlandish laser light show on display.
In this respect, Fear No Evil is practically soulmates with 1981 classmate Evilspeak, which similarly taps into Satanic panic and shades of Carrie as an excuse to partake in absolute nonsense. Because for all its scope and ambition, this one features arguably the pettiest Satan of all-time, one who isn’t hellbent on world domination so much as he just wants to exact revenge on the cool kids who tormented him at school. Let’s be real: this one is likely to be best remembered as the movie where a teenage Lucifer manipulates a testosterone-fueled, meathead gym coach into killing a student with a dodgeball. There worse ways to remembered, especially when you consider the glut of more forgettable rip-offs that emerged during this time.
Distributor AVCO Embassy apparently didn’t know what in the hell to make out of Fear No Evil. Marketing largely positioned it alongside the burgeoning slasher genre, hyping up its high school setting and marking a young cast for death—all while flashing outrageous glimmers of the film’s Satanic slant. You can forgive contemporary audiences for not making it a huge hit, but something this insane was never going to make it through the next couple of decades without becoming a cult hit on video. And so, here we are at the culmination of that journey, as Scream Factory has added Fear No Evil to its already impressive catalogue.
It marks the film’s Blu-ray debut, too, and it arrives with a tremendous new 4K scan and a DTS-MA 2.0 mono track that has it looking and sounding better than it ever has on home video. Supplements are perhaps a little sparse, especially compared to Scream’s stacked release of Lady in White. Arngrim appears for both a feature-length commentary and a 37-minute on-screen interview where he recounts his career before tackling Fear No Evil specifically. A separate interview with effects artist John Egget similarly features the long-time genre vet discussing his participation on this film before mentioning several other noteworthy titles. The usual array of promo materials (a trailer, TV spots, and a stills gallery) provides a brief insight into the marketing to complete a decent—if not somewhat incomplete—package. Considering how much LaLoggia was involved with the Lady in White disc, it’s surprising to see him completely absent here. It’s not a deal-breaker but somewhat disappointing because LaLoggia is otherwise so eager to chat with fans about his work online.
What’s also disappointing is that LaLoggia only directed one more feature after Lady in White, the direct-to-video Mother from 1995 that’s apparently still stuck on VHS. Presumably, it’s stuck in some rights issues hell, but we’ll never say never about any title surfacing on Blu-ray at that point, whether it’s from Scream Factory or someone else. In the meanwhile, let’s enjoy what we have with this release of Fear No Evil, especially if you pair it from Scream’s recent release of The Manitou for the ultimate, mind-melting double feature that confirms AVCO was behind both the greatest Exorcist and Omen riffs ever made. Both curiously feature lasers during their climax too, so I’m not even sure what you’re doing still sitting here reading this: go forth and have your brain scrambled.
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