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A teenager in a track suit with a fixed, blank expression on his face sits in the back seat of a car at night, next to a window thickly smeared with dripping red blood in When Evil Lurks Photo: IFC

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When Evil Lurks is 2023’s scariest possession movie — no exorcisms required

Demián Rugna, of Terrified fame, makes his own rules for a possession movie full of severe shocks

Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

This review of When Evil Lurks comes from the film’s U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest 2023.

The huge wave of new possession/exorcism movies that ran from the mid-2000s through the 2010s just about exhausted the genre. There were so many movies featuring black-veined women doing improbable backbends and insect-crawling up walls and down staircases that the images stopped being shocking. To really unnerve audiences, a filmmaker would have to find a new approach. If the stunning horror movie When Evil Lurks, written and directed by Terrified filmmaker Demián Rugna, is any indication, maybe the best and most innovative approach is just to make a striking family drama, then see how the arrival of a demonic force raises the stakes.

Rugna brings plenty of innovations to the genre, starting with the idea that everyone in the film’s rural Argentinian farming community and the nearby modern town already knows the “seven rules” for dealing with possessing spirits. Everyone knows how implacable and powerful they are, too. When rural farmer Pedro (Ezequiel Rodríguez) and his brother Jimmy (Demián Salomón) realize a man in their region is an encarnado — a possessed, distorted creature described in the subtitles as “a rotten” — they fight, then flee, with disastrous consequences. Where so many possession stories operating in the shadow of The Exorcist are primarily religious stories, this one is more of a family story, about the farmer’s ex-wife, children, and mother, and his attempts to protect them as the encarnado’s contagion spreads, fouling everything it touches.

Strong performances, huge shocks, and a heavy sense of inevitability make this horror movie terrifying. Rugna offers up some tremendous foreshadowing designed to get his audience squirming, then crosses lines that few horror filmmakers are willing to cross. (Viewers who can’t handle graphic bodily harm to children or animals are hereby warned to steer clear.) But the details of the world-building and storytelling are what make When Evil Lurks so memorable. Much as with Evil Dead Rise earlier in 2023, the central family is up against an implacable and even gleeful evil that seems unstoppable. But there’s no sense that Rugna finds their plight funny, the way Evil Dead Rise’s Lee Cronin snickers over his characters’ gory deaths. This movie is a series of rolling tragedies, weighted down by the choices the characters make.

In a post-screening Q&A at the movie’s U.S. premiere at the 2023 Fantastic Fest, Rugna explained that his movie was inspired in part by a series of news stories about pesticide use in rural Argentinian communities, where incidences of childhood cancer skyrocketed because of the chemicals being used. The bureaucratic indifference toward the victims, and the sense that their suffering was unimportant next to the potential for profits, moved Rugna to design this story around the ways institutions fail people, and how easy it is to ignore a problem until it comes for you personally.

In When Evil Lurks, it’s clear from the beginning that there are official government systems for dealing with encarnado — they’re a known problem, with known solutions — but the people who should be taking care of the issue are ignoring it because they don’t feel any sense of personal responsibility. All the horror that follows could have been prevented if people had just done their jobs.

But Rugna doesn’t let individual citizens off the hook. Those seven rules for avoiding possession are simple and clear, but they’re also inconvenient. One of them is “avoid electricity,” since the demonic force seems to travel along electrical fields — but few potential victims want to leave behind modern comforts. It’s easier for people in an afflicted community to deny the problem exists than to change their lifestyles.

An out-of-focus man in the background of a dimly lit shack points a shotgun at the face of a figure in the foreground, a bloated, pustule-covered, bald man with sunken dark eyes, dark veins, and dark smears around his mouth in When Evil Lurks Photo: IFC

That’s a metaphor that could extend to any number of familiar situations — climate change certainly comes to mind, and in America, the endless run of mass shootings resulting from easy access to guns. But this isn’t a movie designed to scold or preach. Rugna just uses human nature to ensure that audiences will recognize and understand every decision these characters make. There’s no “Why would they split up?” or “Who would head down into an unlit basement alone at this point, given what just happened?” in this movie, just tactile, tangible frustration at the ways the characters let their own hang-ups, prejudices, preferences, and fears get in the way of any possible escape.

The evil behind the encarnado isn’t incomprehensible or simplistic, either. It has a specific and understandable agenda, teased early on and fleshed out with horrifying details that all contribute to the sense that this story takes place in a real, thought-through, carefully planned world. The demon is alien in its behavior and abilities, but it’s always clear what it’s working toward, and why everyone else in the story should resist it. The questions Rugna leaves open about it are conscious ones, designed to deepen the mystery and underline the threat. And the answers he does provide just raise the stakes.

When Evil Lurks is a movie for the sleaziest of gorehounds as much as it is for fans of cerebral horror — the practical effects are grisly in the extreme, and as the body count mounts, the deaths get more and more blunt and graphic. Rugna never needs to rely on cheap shocks or jump scares when he has so many ways of evoking real dread. But at heart, this film is meant for horror fans who thought they’d seen it all and were done being scared by possession thrillers. With this project, Rugna breaks plenty of horror rules and literally writes his own, turning his film into 2023’s most unnerving horror release — and a welcome revival for a subgenre that seemed like it was on its last spindly, clawed, wall-climbing legs.

When Evil Lurks debuts in theaters on Oct. 6, and will stream on Shudder starting Oct. 27.

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