February 25, 2024

The other demonic possession movie opening this week, “When Evil Lurks” is unlikely to steal major box-office thunder from “The Exorcist: Believer.” But Argentine genre specialist Demian Rugna’s latest is no mere opportunistic cash-in, either, with its own distinctive and non-formulaic take on the notion of an evil spirit that strikes like a malignant disease. IFC Films is releasing this uneven but engrossing, sometimes startling horror thriller to several hundred U.S. theaters on October 6. Shudder’s first Spanish-language original production begins streaming on that platform October 27. 

Rugna had an international breakout five years ago with his third feature “Terrified” (aka “Aterrados”), about a fantastical, lethal infestation in a couple of middle-class Buenos Aires households. A Guillermo del Toro-produced English-language remake was announced, as well as “Terrified 2,” though neither has yet come to pass. (In the interim, Rugna completed only one directorial segment in the recently released omnibus “Satanic Hispanics.”) Instead, we have this new “contagion” thriller, which trades its predecessor’s supposedly scientifically-explicable menace for a supernatural one, and a domestic suburban setting for a road-trip structure. But in conceptual and tonal terms, the two are very similar. 

Once again, Rugna’s screenplay commences with nocturnal sounds that alert our protagonists to something amiss. Here, it’s gunshots in the distance that rouse taciturn Yazurlo brothers Pedro (Ezequiel Rodriguez) and Jimi (Demian Salomon) in their rural farmhouse. Waiting till daylight to investigate, they make a grisly discovery — the lower half of a corpse — in nearby woods, surrounding evidence indicating it was a “cleaner” (or exorcist) arrived to chase a hostile entity from some unlucky host. That in turn leads them to the shack inhabited by Maria Elena (Isabel Quinteros) and her two sons, one of whom is in a ghastly state. Uriel (played by different actors under a great deal of icky latex) is bedridden, bloated, covered in pustules, leaking green fluids that might give Linda Blair a nostalgic twinge. He’s just alive enough to beg, “Kill me.” 

Apparently this — whatever it is — has been going on for a year, and local authorities have duly been notified. But when the Yazurlos harangue police to do something, they’re laughed out of the station. Realizing they’ll somehow have to deal with the issue themselves, the brothers enlist neighboring landowner Ruiz (Luis Ziembrowski), whose main concern is for his property values. It’s his idea that they simply drag the near-dead “rotten” (an odd, repeatedly used term here for the possessed) to a pickup truckbed, then drive him/it to some place of anonymous disposal a good long drive away. 

But apparently moving a “rotten” only spreads its insidious influence further. In any case, once they’ve driven far enough, the men find their nasty cargo has disappeared en route. That this hasn’t solved the problem at all very soon becomes apparent, as terrible things happen on Ruiz’s ranch, then follow the fleeing brothers as they attempt to warn Pedro’s ex-wife (Virginia Garofalo) and children. Continued flight eventually leads to the drafting of another “cleaner” (Silvina Sabater in a role much like Elvira Onetto’s in “Terrified”). But by this point, the demonic force might be anywhere or anything, as it is capable of reanimating corpses and/or controlling the living. Nor does it politely shy from messing with either children or pets, as some rather alarming incidents demonstrate. 

Though “When Evil Lurks” may well have developed out of Rugna’s ideas for “Terrified 2” — in terms of scale, it seems a logical next-step expansion from that film — it manages to sufficiently establish its own turf as a potential franchise-starter. While once again the changeling menace’s backstory and goals remain murky, its rules of engagement likewise (we do get appraised regarding the dangers of utilizing gunfire and electric light), the havoc it wreaks does not lack for sudden vividness. 

As in “Terrified,” Rugna front-loads the most shocking content, diminishing taut urgency after a point. It can be disconcerting that his rather convoluted plotting tends to abandon some principal characters for long periods in favor of others. Still, if the effect is a bit wayward, it has the virtue of being unpredictable. In refusing to tie up loose ends or even explain exactly what our protagonists are up against, the writer-director doesn’t frustrate expectations so much as whet appetite for future installments where those concerns will presumably be addressed.

It’s a major plus that the actors all play their frequently thorny, argumentative characters with a straight face, allowing us to grudgingly swallow the script’s insistence that nearly everyone here accepts the reality of a demonic invasion with little skepticism or protest. Also making a persuasive case are the atmospherics wrought by Mariano Suarez’s first-rate widescreen camerawork, Pablo Fuu’s edge-of-heavy-metal score, editor Lionel Cornistein’s taut pacing, Marcos Berta’s visual effects, and all other major design contributions.

“Where Evil Lurks” is occasionally gross, confusing, and near-arbitrary. At times it feels like a series’ middle chapter, one disinclined to explain things we’re unclear about. Yet it never lacks the conviction, style or sardonic wit needed to make those flaws seem incidental to what’s overall a pretty bracing ride. 

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