Video Clumsy: Evilspeak

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

The movies identified as “video nasties” by the Department of Public Prosecutions back in the 1980s back in the day are a varied lot. Some have particularly extreme scenes that stand out as being gruesome enough to alarm a conservative 1980s audience, even though as a whole the films in question aren’t too different in premise from well-established fare. Some seem to have been designed to court controversy on a thematic basis. And some seem to be on the list by pure accident, the movies in question being so tacky, cheap, and just plain bad that it’d be hard to imagine anyone taking them seriously at all, let alone setting up a moral panic over them. You could say that these films aren’t so much “video nasties” as “video clumsies”.

One of those “why did the DPP even care?” films is Evilspeak, a B-movie cheap enough that nobody could mistake it for a real snuff movie (as happened with Cannibal Holocaust) and cheesy enough that nobody could mistake it for a film about genuine occult phenomena (which seems to have been the basis for Mary Whitehouse singling out The Evil Dead). I almost suspect that it was added to the list based on a skim-reading of a plot summary.

So, it turns out that a heretical, demon-worshipping sect led by a certain Father Esteban (Richard Moll) was exiled by the Spanish Empire, and ended up being granted land in North America (presumably due to the English crown’s policy at the time of fucking with the Spaniards whenever convenient). Fast forward to the 20th Century, and there’s a modern military academy of the strict-to-the-point-of-fascism variety the USA seem to love built on the land in question – which explains why this academy, with all of its modern buildings, seems to have a medieval dungeon tucked away in the basement.

Said dungeon is discovered by one Stanley Coopersmith (Clint Howard), one of the more awkward students at the academy. Disliked by staff and students alike (in a rather dubious plot point, the only student willing to be friendly to Coopersmith is also more or less the only black student we see), Coopersmith often finds himself on the receiving end of bullying by his peers and officially condoned bullying on the part of the staff; hence spending much of his time on various punishment duties, ranging from slopping out the academy’s small army of carnivorous pigs (yeah, I don’t get why they have the pigs either) to cleaning out the basement under the dubious supervision of the drunken, abusive janitor Sarge (R.G. Armstrong).

It’s during the latter duty that Coopersmith discovers the dungeon, with all the cool loot inside it. Translating Father Esteban’s diary by typing it into a computer (because that’s how computers work), soon enough Coopersmith is holding his own little black masses with the aid of a possessed terminal (because that’s also how computers work), whose graphical capabilities modestly increase once the mass is successful in order to display wacky pentagram animations when the ensuing magical spells and demonic powers kick off (because that, too, is how computers work). As the rest of the academy goes about its business – which seems to involve a weird double standard where the boys wear military uniforms and pretend to do military stuff whilst the girls wear sexy civilian clothes and seem to exist mostly to put on beauty pageants for the boys’ morale – Coopersmith finds himself more and more alienated, and not even the love of a stray puppy he looks after in the dungeon can soothe him. When the main bully clique invades his inner sanctum and mistreat the sweet puppy in question, Coopersmith gets the big guns out, taking down the academy Carrie-style thanks to the all-conquering power of our Lord Satan. (Satan, apparently, is a third-rate wire-fu artist with a fondness for piggies.)

This is a cheap little movie which ticks most of the exploitation formula boxes. You get an assigned dose of nudity when the principal’s secretary has a shower, you have a bit of gore, you have some over-the-top deaths which you can’t take too seriously due to how obvious the special effects are, and you have a plot that doesn’t quite hold together all told. There’s a downright bizarre pig-based subplot, wherein by stealing Esteban’s gemstone-encrusted diary whilst Coopersmith is slopping out the pigs the secretary establishes some sort of weird pig-based connection between the book and the pigs, so when she has her shower scene she’s interrupted by a horde of angry pigs bursting into her house to spirit the book away; at least, they’re meant to be angry, but they’re obviously perfectly calm, happy piggies and the puppet that attacks the secretary in her shower isn’t exactly convincing. This subplot adds nothing to the overall story except running time, and the same is true of a bunch of other strands in the movie.

Overall, the script is rather shaky. In particular, it feels like it’s undergone a bunch of rewrites and retained a number of features from previous versions of the script which are necessary for the story that is told here to take place, but simultaneously don’t make much sense in the context of the story either. A major issue is the way Father Esteban set up his cult in the USA, and then the military academy appeared there, but there doesn’t seem to be any actual connection between the academy and the cult, except the academy has all of the cult’s old shit in its basement, except on the other hand nobody’s ever found that stuff aside from Coopersmith – despite the fact that the current chaplain (played by Joseph Cortese) specifically says that he has an interest in the history of the chapel and the academy buildings in general and has made a point of researching them.

It feels like it would make a lot more sense if some vestige of the cult had survived to the present day within the academy’s administration, perhaps with the reverend being the current leader of the cult, and that the plot would revolve around them trying to manipulate Coopersmith into helping bring back Father Esteban to life (a resurrection hinted at throughout the film but which is only vaguely realised at the end). This would make scenes like the one where the Reverend creepily pops up out of nowhere whilst Coopersmith is trying to report for the start of his basement-clearing duty make much more sense.

Likewise, the movie makes a lot of the computer stuff without the computer ever actually becoming plot-relevant. It performs literally no function which requires it to be present, and it feels like after flailing around for stuff to do with it the director (Eric Weston) gave up and just used the computer to provide a modern aesthetic for some of the Satan stuff. Apparently, the computer bits were latter-day additions to the script, and it really kind of shows, since crucial bits of logistics don’t quite make sense. (In particular, how the hell did Coopersmith manage to steal a school computer and smuggle it down to the basement without anyone at least commenting that an entire terminal has gone missing?)

In short, Evilspeak is a tame, confusing muddle of a horror film undone by a script that doesn’t put a high priority on making internal sense and the failure of cute, adorable piggies to look remotely evil.