A photo of a young child in pyjamas standing next to a large brown dog. Demian Rugna’s WHEN EVIL LURKS. Courtesy of Shudder and IFC Films. A Shudder and IFC Films release.
Demian Rugna’s WHEN EVIL LURKS. Courtesy of Shudder and IFC Films. A Shudder and IFC Films release.

Demián Rugna’s Grotesque When Evil Lurks Delivers a New Twist on the Possession Genre

Demonic possession has definitely become the horror trend du jour over the past year. Alongside surprise hit Talk to Me are sequels and reboots such as Evil Dead Rise, Insidious: The Red Door, The Nun II and The Exorcist: Believer, indie films It Lives Inside, Attachment and upcoming Australian film Godless: The Eastfield Exorcism, as well as The Pope’s Exorcist and Prey for the Devil, which take possession and exorcism back to its Catholic roots. When Evil Lurks delivers a new twist, with possession becoming an infectious disease running rife through a rural community in Argentina.   

Brothers Pedro (Ezequiel Rodriguez) and Jimmy (Demián Saloman) hear a gunshot from a nearby property and go to investigate. On their way they stumble on (half) a body but are met with an even more shocking sight when they visit their neighbours, a woman and her two sons. One of the sons is revealed to be “a rotten”, one of the “possessed ones” whose bodily invasion is accompanied by bodily decay. Bloated, swollen, and leaking all manner of bodily fluids, the rottens are a truly grotesque sight. But you cannot put them out of their misery – killing them, especially with a gun, only causes the possession to spread further. To dispatch them one must call on a “cleaner”, but it soon becomes clear that the authorities have been ignoring the problem.

Along with another neighbour, Pedro and Jimmy set out to remove the rotten from the community but, of course, this doesn’t go to plan. With the disease set loose, it soon becomes clear that anyone is susceptible – children and animals in particular. Later Pedro and Jimmy meet up with a cleaner, Mirta (Silvina Sabater, in a role that Lin Shaye would have relished if it was in English), who helps them devise a plan.

It is perhaps easy and obvious (and inescapable) to see the Covid parallels: the ineffectual authorities, the resistance to following the rules, the gradual adjustment to a new normal. But it doesn’t labour the point; this is about ratcheting up the tension as the immensity of the evil that has been unleashed becomes apparent. Writer/director Demián Rugna has no qualms about dispatching those who are the most innocent and vulnerable in the most violent way possible.   

While the element of contagion is present, with an emphasis on bodily breakdown and destruction, there is also a supernatural, almost spiritual, aspect to the epidemic. The possession follows Pedro because of his fear, and they find no solace from religion as it is repeatedly stated that “the churches are dead”.

Initially, these drips of information come out organically, building a lived-in world where characters are aware of the rules of the game. But as the film progresses it resorts to exposition-heavy monologues, first from Pedro and Jimmy’s mother and then Mirta. Unfortunately, these explanations cause confusion rather than cohesion.

The film works best when it doesn’t strive for coherence, but for unmitigated (and unexplained) dread and bursts of extreme violence. Coming six years after his breakout hit Terrified, Rugna shows himself to have a deft hand at crafting tales of the supernatural. Whereas Terrified was set in suburbia, the rural setting of When Evil Lurks recalls Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling – a film that also explores the duality of innocence and instinct found in children. At one point Marta states: “Evil likes kids. And kids like evil.” On their journey Pedro picks up his two sons, with his fear for their safety further attracting evil. The setup also brings to mind Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing, which similarly links infection and possession, and focuses on a protagonist fighting to protect his own child. 

While the final act doesn’t maintain the horror and intrigue of the first half, When Evil Lurks does provide a welcome relief from the well-worn tropes of demonic possession. Coming out of a long period where we all feared an unseen threat waiting to take over our bodies, while enforced isolation similarly threatened to warp our minds, perhaps it’s no wonder we keep needing to exorcise those demons.  

Director: Demián Rugna

Cast: Ezequiel Rodríguez, Demián Salomón, Luis Ziembrowski

Writer: Demián Rugna

Lindsay Hallam

Lindsay Hallam is a Senior Lecturer in Film at the University of East London. She is the author of two books, Screening the Marquis de Sade: Pleasure, Pain and the Transgressive Body in Film and a Devil's Advocates volume on Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and is currently writing a monograph on Australian horror cinema.

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