Long before Steven Spielberg found his groove directing award-winning biopics and big-budget family films, it seemed like — if only for a moment — the young auteur might settle comfortably into a life of delivering audiences straight up genre pictures. It may be hard to believe now, young readers, but the sprawling blockbusters we associate with the Spielberg of today are a far cry from the type of stuff he originally helmed when starting out in Hollywood. Like a lot of first time directors, Spielberg cut his teeth in the business by focusing on the horror, sci-fi, and exploitation genres.
While still a fresh-faced college student who was only midway through his studies at Cal State, Spielberg was offered the opportunity of a lifetime: a 7-year directing deal with Universal Studios. Too good a chance to pass up, he soon dropped out of school to focus on directing full time. The 21-year-old wunderkind‘s first directorial effort was an episode of NIGHT GALLERY, and following a string of well-received television credits over the next few years, Universal signed Spielberg to direct four TV films.
Probably the most well-known of those four, the one often cited as “Spielberg’s first film,” is DUEL (1971). Starring Dennis Weaver as a weary businessman terrorized by a maniacal truck driver on a stretch of desert road, the TV film was hit and has since secured its place high on many listcles ’round the web.
Less remembered, however, is SOMETHING EVIL (1972), Spielberg’s follow up film which was released just two months later. Written expressly to cash in on the success of the then just-released novel THE EXORCIST (the film version of THE EXORCIST was still a few years away), SOMETHING EVIL weaves a similar – and generally familiar – tale.
Darren McGavin and Sandy Dennis play a husband and wife who move from the big city into a creepy farmhouse on the outskirts of town. Soon, strange things start happening, and their oldest child, a son (played by Johnny Whitaker), starts displaying demonic behavior. However, Dennis is the only one in the family who seems to witness these episodes, and soon her sanity is called into question. Y’know, your typical haunted spookhouse-type stuff.
The quality of the movie is pretty much what you’d expect from a television film of that era, but knowing that the then-unknown 26-year-old director would go on to become one of the highest grossest directors of all time adds a bit of whimsy to the watch.
Many of the Spielberg trademarks are there — the way he blocks two actors in a scene to create an uneasy depth of field; the way he shoots ensemble scenes with overlapping dialogue — they’re rough, but the calling cards are there, and they’re immediately noticeable if you’re a fan of Spielberg. If only John Williams had scored the film, there’d be no denying who was behind the camera.
One interesting thing to note is the similarities between SOMETHING EVIL and POLTERGEIST (1982), a film Spielberg produced for director Tobe Hooper. Everyone and their grandma knows of the persistent rumor that Spielberg did more directing on POLTERGEIST than Hooper. If there were ever proof of it, I’d say it’s SOMETHING EVIL.
Darren McGavin and Sandy Dennis play a loving and goofy (if not just plain weird) couple much like Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams in POLTERGEIST. Both couples share scenes of dialogue while propped up in bed. Hell, both couples even look similar! While the family dynamic is clearly the most homogeneous, there are other minor parallels between the two films, too: the haunted home, the little blonde daughter, the mom drawing circles on the floor.
If you’ve seen POLTERGEIST, give SOMETHING EVIL a watch — and I promise you’ll start picking things out as well.
Ultimately, while still enjoyable, SOMETHING EVIL is fairly indistinguishable from its ’70s spooky made-for-TV brethren. There wasn’t a lot of wiggle room for these type of productions, and so many of them (especially those borne of this era) end up wearing a similar sheen to them, resulting in a recognizable final product. Still, the novelty of watching Steven Spielberg’s second directorial effort is worth the price of admission alone.
For whatever reason, the film has been brushed aside and buried over the years. In fact, it’s considered a “lost” film as it still hasn’t found its way onto any form of home media. Adding to its elusive charm, it’s the only professional full length feature directed by Steven Spielberg not available on any form of home media. Can you believe it?
Thankfully, the film is not completely lost; in fact, it’s viewable in its entirety on YouTube. Some kind and quick-thinking souls who were lucky enough to catch (and record) a rerun of it on TV have uploaded it for posterity… and for now, it’s the only way to watch it.