This old mansion house in the middle of nowhere has been abandoned for some time, but now a psychologist by the name of Doctor C.J. Arnold (Richard Crenna) has asked for its doors to be opened to him and his team, all for the benefit of his research into fear, so he may invite patients and professionals alike to stay over there with him and his wife Caroline, also a doctor. What they don’t know is that the place is very haunted indeed, as the caretaker (Ed Bakey) discovers to his cost when he is preparing it for visitors. Once inside, he thinks he can hear someone else there as he sweeps up, and when he investigates he ends up in the basement furnace room – he wasn’t to know that if he opened the door he would be attacked with a ball of flame.
Like The Birds and ecological horror, it took until the following decade for nineteen-sixties classic chiller The Haunting to really spawn a bunch of similar efforts in the haunted house genre, and The Evil was one of those, neither the worst nor the best of them, but somewhere in the middle as far as entertainment went. Taking a cue from The Exorcist into the bargain, this actually trapped its characters inside the house in question once the blundering C.J. managed to unleash the demons of Hell, or as much of that as the budget would allow, which evidently stretched to a wind machine judging by how many of the more intense sequences were shot in what appeared to be a Force 9 gale.
It was a cheap and effective method of indicating some unseen presence was wreaking havoc, and since they could not afford any breathing doors this was the best they could do as the cast were assembled, then picked off in slasher movie fashion over the course of the next ninety minutes or so. They were mostly familiar faces from television filling up the roles, with Crenna and Pettet probably the biggest stars and even then not exactly the most famous A-listers you would ever see in seventies cinema, but professionals all considering much of what they were invited to do was look suitably panicked then expire in mysterious and violent circumstances – you could tell the eighties heyday of gore makeup was on its way.
That said, there was a reliance on those scenes of bloody death to keep the interest alive when as far as personality went they were each landed with the barest minimum of sustaining our intrigue. For example, Pete (George O’Hanlon Jr) has the characteristic of being a practical joker, and if Friday the 13th Part III taught us anything it’s that the last thing anyone wants to see in a horror flick is one of those, which might explain why the screenwriters were setting him up for a fall – literally. Any hopes this might be a Scooby-Doo for adults were scuppered when the film’s dog, an Alsatian pet of Mary (Cassie Yates), is immediately sent into a tizzy the moment it enters the house and wanders off to turn feral. Ruh-roh!
When C.J., having never seen a horror movie before, removes a metal cross from the handles of a trapdoor in the basement, it stops the investigators from leaving what with the doors being suddenly locked, as are the windows – they cannot even break their way out. With no phones to assist them, they are stuck in a succession of humiliating paranormal chills, as when Lynne Moody is stripped to her underwear by the demons, or Andrew Prine nearly saws through his hand with a powertool when trying to cut open a door. What this was leading up to proved controversial at the time, not because it was too scary or even blasphemous, but because audience found it silly: the film drew to a climax when (spoilers!) C.J. and Caroline burst into the cellar and found the Devil himself! Or rather, rotund character actor and comedy poet Victor Buono who calls C.J. an “insignificant speck of vomit” and threatens to claim his soul (or something), which was certainly wacky, but not exactly chilling. And yet, it was offbeat touches like that which made The Evil diverting. Music by Johnny Harris.