Thursday, May 5, 2016

Retro Review: EVILSPEAK (1981)

Welcome to another installment of RETRO REVIEW where we take a look at films made before the year 2000.  Today we review the 1981 horror/fantasy film, EVILSPEAK.  Enjoy!

Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that "[any] sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." He was mostly right; any technology advanced beyond the observer's understanding is indistinguishable from magic. That lack of general understanding has been fertile ground for horror stories since the beginning of time, and it is from this black spawning pit that the story of Evilspeak was born. Combined in this story are the "Satanic Panic" of the 1970s and 80s, the technophobia that many felt at the dawning of the computer age, and perhaps that foulest of all eldritch horrors, the mind of the American Teenager. Mix it all up, put it into a pot, and out comes a story about a social outcast who uses his school's computer to summon Old Scratch. In 1981. And that's not even the silliest part.

Poor Stanley Coopersmith has been having a rough time of it at West Andover Military Academy. He doesn't fit in with his fellows; he's no good at sports; he's harrassed daily by overbearing teachers; he has to clean out the school basement for some reason; he's just generally not feeling the love. While busy with his never-fully-explained cleaning project (the film only tells us it's "punishment detail"), Stanley discovers a hidden vault in the basement, full of dusty old books and other sinister looking relics. It turns out that this fine academy was founded by a certain Father Esteban, a former priest who rejected all things holy with extreme prejudice and was excommunicated by the Catholic Church during the time of the Inquisition. This room was Esteban's secret chapel, and the books are the records of his foul and heretical deeds. Through the standard application of the rules of convenient storytelling, Stanley instantly lays hands on the one book in the entire collection that will place him squarely on the path to Satanic power and unholy retribution against his tormentors. We, the viewers can tell this is the right book because it has a marble glued to the cover.

But a new problem arises: the book is written in Latin. Not to worry, the school has a computer! It can easily translate the arcane writings into modern English. See, computers in the early 80s came standard with all the secrets of the universe preloaded, and thus had the godlike power to save or destroy the world. So stanley begins using the computer to translate the book, which turns out to be a journal. After translating a few passages, the computer becomes sufficiently infected with Satan's vile influence that it is now able to answer laughably sanitized "goth-curious" questions like "What are the keys to the kingdom of Satan's magic?" So, I guess the moral today would be, "Be careful what you type into Google Translate."

I think I should mention at this point that the computer in question can clearly be identified in several shots as an Apple IIe, which begs the necessary argument: does this demonstrate that Macs have always been evil, or does it prove that they're superior in the world of personal computing? I mean, can you really imagine this story working with a Windows machine? Discuss, you Win-drones. Discuss, you Mac-in-tossers.

Anyway: in keeping with Satanic Panic paranoia, Stanley immediately leaps on the express lane of the Highway to Hell. He steals the computer -- which no one notices, even though it's the only one the school has -- sets it up in Esteban's crypt, and sets about the business of conducting his very own black mass, which takes most of the movie. Apparently there's a learning curve to these things. In the meantime, the bullies keep bullying, the teachers keep harassing, and the pressures of an otherwise normal high school experience keep mounting as the film plods, doggedly and without a trace of subtlety, towards its conclusion.

They say all art reflects the age in which it was created, and Evilspeak certainly does that. It does this so simplistically and openly that it's tempting to use the film as yet more proof that people in the past were fools, and only we, the men, women and et cetera of 2016 are the true keepers of Wisdom and Enlightenment. But here's the thing: it's hard to see the prevailing attitude of the day for what it is at the time, and the prevailing attitude of the day is always changing. It's likely that thirty years from now someone will look at, say, Blue is the Warmest Color or The Hurt Locker and wonder what in God's name was wrong with us. The past is, and always will be, a foreign country. They do things differently there.

None of which changes the fact that Evilspeak takes such radical leaps of storytelling logic that it's practically a piece of after-school special propaganda. It works on the assumption that the audience is filled with the kind of frightened souls who still believe that the clean-cut, straight arrow all-American boy will instantly morph into Barney from The Simpsons after drinking a Budweiser. In that way, Evilspeak exists in a kind of horror movie equivalent of the uncanny valley: instead of telling a story intended to cause fear, Evilspeak shows the things the audience of that time would have already feared. It lets the monsters out of the closet and forces the audience to face them.

And this is why Evilspeak isn't scary anymore: we no longer fear these things. Today Satanists are just bored teenagers with a weird taste in music. Today computers have permeated our lives like water permeates a sponge, and the gates of Hell have yet to open, the toxicity and idiocy on display in any given Internet comment section notwithstanding. Today teenagers ... well, they're still teenagers, but there's medication for that now.

So I prefer to treat Evilspeak as a historical curiosity, like all those alien invasion movies from the fifties and sixties where the aliens were just a thin allegory for the Soviet Union. It's the comparatively low-tech moviemaking of the early eighties coupled with some of the more embarassing phobias in our recent history. It's the cinematic equivalent of that picture of your uncle, back when he had the afro and wore bell-bottom pants. Sure it looks silly now, but it's a glimpse of who we were, warts and all. And there's something to be said for accepting such imperfection.

Robert's Score: 5/10

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