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Evilspeak (1981)


“Oh shit! You must got the devil in you!” exclaims Damon Wayans before screaming at a very high-pitch. He later claims “I was whistling!,” in Keenan Ivory Wayans’ I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988). A woman he’s been tailing spins around to reveal big hair and Thriller-eyes. It turns out she doesn’t actually have ‘the devil’ in her, only cramps, which are worse since the devil isn’t real. Unfortunately for the great Clint Howard, he’s unable to blame his menstrual cycle on the carnage he’ll soon inflict upon those who’ve mistreated him. He’s made a pact with Satan, or at least one of his disciples, and blood will be spilled. So goes the premise for Eric Weston’s feature film debut, the occult horror film Evilspeak (1981).

A Kahlil Gibran quote fades into view amid silence. "And Satan said to the Man of God... 'What would you do tomorrow if you allowed me to die today? What vocation would you pursue if my name disappeared?'" From a purely cinematic standpoint, it’s an intriguing notion and one that would be echoed in the finale of Conan the Barbarian (1982) only a year later. What’s striking about the opening to the film is its time period. While certainly low budget, the costumes and locale suggest the early 16th century. Lorenzo Estaban (Richard Moll, Big Ben in House, of course, but I say Loaded Weapon 1 “The Right! I meant stay to the RIGHT!”) is being banished by a church official for devil worship and the glorification of evil. He’s told, “If in the future you see me, it will be as your redeemer or your executioner.” Estaban spits at him and gathers his followers, who worship him like a deity. A pentagram is drawn in the sand (I should try that on my next beach trip just to freak out the locals). A young woman removes her clothing and kneels in front of him. He holds his sword aloft and before you can say “By the power of Grayskull,” lops her head off. We get a transition I’ve never seen before since her head toppling over segues into a soccer ball being kicked up into the air. Impressive. Of course, in many countries soccer, or at least soccer riots, are about as violent as a decapitation.

When you see Clint Howard, you want him to succeed. He elicits sympathy. You just assume he’s a nice guy and needs a friend because...well, come on! Look at him! He’s not much of a soccer player, however, and even less of a social butterfly. A new cadet at a military academy, he’s basically a male Carrie White who comes by his powers way farther down the road. Nobody likes him except super nice token black guy Kowalski (Haywood Nelson, Dwayne on What’s Happening!!), who tries to get the gung ho assholes to lay off him. Stanley Coopersmith (Howard) isn’t having an easy go of it. His parents died recently, making him an orphan, and he’s basically a welfare case as Colonel Kincaid (Charles Tyner, Harold and Maude, Pete’s Dragon) informs the mother of a cadet who also happens to be a senator’s wife.

The other cadets call him ‘CooperDick’ and needlessly tease and abuse him. They also blame him for their soccer loss, even though he literally makes one mistake on the field and it’s not like the other players weren’t around. I wasn’t the best player on my soccer team. They stuck me on defense and sometimes midfield. I was fine there. Didn’t bother anybody. Why don’t they just put him there? Anyways, it’s school policy that everyone gets to play and it seems very important to Stanley that he participates. One dickhead says “You couldn’t play for the March of Dimes.” Okay... The leader of Coopersmith’s tormentors is Bubba, who looks nothing like his name and is played by Don Stark, probably best known for That 70’s Show. The other guys in the group include the great Loren Lester, who often voiced Robin on Batman: The Animated Series but was also one of the hall monitors in Rock n’ Roll High School (1979). Even the coach (Claude Earl Jones, the amazing Miracle Mile, Re-Animator, Dark Night of the Scarecrow) can’t stand him and even suggests the boys do something about young Stanley after saying the locker room “looks like a shithouse.”

Coopersmith is perpetually in trouble and always gets punished. This time he has to clean the basement of the chapel, a hugely difficult task made worse by the presence of the alcoholic Sarge (R.G. Armstrong, who worked with everyone from Sam Peckinpah to Warren Beatty). Father Estaban gifted the academy’s land many years prior and although his portrait is hung proudly in the chapel, the boys warn Stanley about Estaban’s spirit lurking in the basement. It turns out, they’re not wrong.

Stanley finds a secret room and discovers various potions, a mason jar with a fetus, and a book with a pentagram emblazoned on the cover. He’s fascinated and later dreams the fetus moves, candles are lit, and a zombified arm grabs him through the walls. He wakes up to see his clothes have been messed with and his alarm clock’s been unplugged. He dashes to class, where his very German instructor Hauptman (Hamilton Camp, one of the great voiceover actors), asks why he’s late. Stanley won’t answer and Hauptman says “Your silence pleases me.” He checks out Estaban’s book in class. Why do students in movies always decide to check something out in class? Can’t it wait an hour? Is it really worth getting it confiscated? He gets sent to the colonel’s office, but beforehand, he accesses the computer he’s been using to develop a catapult model to translate some of the verses in the book. This thing is a helluva translator because it gives very clear interpretations of Estaban’s beliefs and incantations. The book claims that Satan is God and it’s possible to enter the Kingdom of Magic Keys, which sounds like a cool place, honestly. Like Disney World for Satanists. The big takeaway from the book is that Estaban vows “I will return.”

He heads over to the Colonel’s office where the haughty Miss Friedemeyer (Lynn Hancock) notices the book fall into a waste basket. While Stanley literally gets paddled (what kind of school is this?), she steals the book in order to pry the jewels off the cover. Stanley’s still put on punishment detail, this time having to do farm work and feed the pigs. The pigs are ravenous and pretty vicious, especially when hungry, but as Miss Friedemeyer works on the book, something spooks the pigs, riling them up and they nearly eat poor Stanley.

The assholes destroy his catapult and then he realizes the book is missing. Roller boogie was still a big deal at this point, I guess, although didn’t Linda Blair’s film say it all? Anyway, he confronts the hot bowl of dicks that is Bubba’s crew at the rink, who feign ignorance about the missing book. He takes his computer into the secret room and begins to research ways to summon the evil spirits. Admittedly, I’m not certain if it’s admirably subtle or just simply a plot device that Stanley finds the idea of summoning demons to be fascinating. It’s implied that he’s highly intelligent, but it’s also never specifically stated that he wants to get powers to smite his enemies. Still, the film is extremely innovative in its use of computer technology. Yes, I have no idea how he got such a long power cable to that Apple II computer considering he’s practically in a dungeon, but he manages to decipher how to perform a Black Mass; a ritual later seen in the Turkish horror Baskin (2015). He needs: Mandrake root, juice of aconite, poplar leaves, arsenic, sulphur, black candles, unholy water, and a consecrated host. Seems like those things would be tough to come by at the local Piggly Wiggly, but nearly all of it is right there in the room. Convenient. He can’t complete the incantation because he doesn’t realize that the final ingredient is blood.

Rushing to get the last scraps of dinner at the mess hall, a kindly cook (Lenny Montana, Luca Brasi in The Godfather) takes pity on Stanley and fixes him a nice steak dinner. He shows him a litter of adorable puppies, one of which, the runt, isn’t long for this world. Stanley sees a kindred spirit and keeps him, determined to nurse it back to health. He takes the puppy down to the lair and continues his attempts to contact Estaban. He hears noises and gets ambushed by figures in pig masks. He’s knocked out and it turns out to be Bubba and the Assholes (a band name if there ever was one). Stanley wakes up believing he actually summoned demons. “Far fuckin’ out! It worked!” Sarge finds Stanley and the puppy while the computer starts freaking out, displaying a red pentagram. In a horrifying moment, Sarge threatens to twist the poor dog’s neck, then it gets worse. He calls Stanley a “cocksucker” and threatens rape: “Let me show you how I make a little boy into a little girl.” Holy shit. Well, Hail Satan because the spirit in the computer, or the ghost in the machine, whatever…literally spins Sarge’s head around, saving Stanley. Coopersmith tries to tell the Colonel and the Coach, but they won’t listen.

While a misogynistic and disturbing beauty pageant goes on called ‘Miss Heavy Artillery,’ where the cadets leer at local girls, Miss Friedemeyer takes the book home and jumps into the shower. The edit here is a little odd, as she goes from fully clothed to bra and panties with little finesse. Still, this is the ‘extended’ version, so several inserted scenes have a far lower quality. It’s like watching the reconstructed cut of Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973). The pigs suddenly burst into the shower and devour Miss Friedemeyer. It’s a pretty good scene, although Weston uses real pigs, which are occasionally rough looking but not exactly the quickest attackers. The occasional use of a puppet head gives the moment a bit more urgency. According to Weston and Howard, this scene and the finale were much longer but had to be pared down. We see a pig pulling what I assume are her intestines out, but the amount of gore here is pretty average. The original footage is thought to be lost.

A party for the big soccer game against John Paul Jones follows the beauty contest. There’s at least some normal college behavior since they’re burning JP Jones in effigy. Stanley strikes up a conversation with one of the contestants who lost the contest and when she shares her joint with him, Bubba shows up to bust him and get him suspended from the soccer game. They take soccer seriously at this academy.

While Stanley lays in bed, humiliated after having his pants pulled off in front of the ladies, the prick patrol take some beer and head down into the chapel basement. In a pretty well-written scene considering it involves only the antagonists, they find the computer and the satanic books. They also find the puppy. At first, it seems the ladies will protect the dog, but these drunken pieces of shit see the word ‘blood’ blinking on the screen, find a knife, and sacrifice the poor pup. These motherfuckers need to DIE! The computer corrects them and says it needs ‘human blood.’ I wish the puppy didn’t die, it was very sweet, but at least they do it completely off-screen and there’s no yelp sound effect either. It just happens, so I’ve seen worse.

Stanley finds the remains of his puppy and pretty much loses it. He grabs a communion wafer and Hauptman follows him down into the basement. He asks “What the devil do you think you’re doing?,” which is pretty funny. Stanley somehow throws his teacher up onto the ceiling, where he’s impaled on a spiky overhang and his blood flows freely. Stanley fills a golden cup and drinks the blood. Estaban’s face appears over Stanley’s and he briefly looks like a devil pig monster. It’s time to rock and roll and get those dog-killing pieces of shit.

The soccer team, coach, and colonel have congregated in the chapel where Reverend Jameson (Joe Cortese, The Departed, American History X) gives a hilariously uplifting and stupid speech. He says God is the “head referee” and “every time you go to the trough of sin, like gluttony, lust, like pigs; you’re being goaded by Satan.” Speak of the devil, because all hell breaks loose and it is glorious.

The crucified Jesus begins to bleed and the stone spike shoots out of his wrist straight through Jameson’s forehead. The altar explodes and Stanley rises out of the flames, sword in hand. He is literally floating. He brings the sword down on the colonel and there’s a phenomenal head explosion. Really grisly. The pigs return. Again, it’s tough to make them scary since they don't move super fast, but the puppet heads look mean and they eat a few more of the players. We get fantastic decapitations and it’s like an inferno. I can’t imagine what a mind like Clive Barker could’ve done with this kind of material. Bubba gets it the worst and his death actually comes very unexpectedly. The re-animated corpse of Sarge appears out of nowhere and rips his still beating heart out of his chest, presumably to show Bubba how black it is. A giant cross topples over and the chapel burns to the ground. In real life, the chapel was due for demolition, so when the movie folk were refurbishing it for the final scene, a minister believed they were fixing it, which must have provided him with quite a shock later on. We find out Stanley was the lone survivor of the tragic ‘accident’ and was committed to an asylum. The evil computer turns on and types out “I, Stanley Coopersmith, will return. I WILL RETURN.”

Although little in terms of chills and thrills occur for nearly an hour, the film builds very nicely thanks to the intrigue of seeing Clint Howard enact his revenge. The screenplay, by Weston and Joseph Garofalo, is suitably nasty and the satanic text scenes feel authentic. The art direction and set decoration by George Costello, Dena Roth, and Maria Caso, who between them worked on The Terminator, The Night of the Creeps, A Mighty Wind, and Deadwood, is particularly good in the basement scenes. The lair is appropriately filthy and gloomy, with plenty of cobwebs and skeletons. The photography by Irv Goodnoff is dark and shadowy. He’d also use his expertise with darkness for Dan O’Bannon’s The Resurrected (1991). Finally, the music by Oscar-nominee Roger Kellaway (A Star is Born, 1976) has an Omen feel, but it still stands on his own and works well with the material.

Clint Howard has been in many films and he’s a favorite among horror aficionados for films like Ice Cream Man, Ticks, Leprechaun 2, and The Wraith, although I can’t say for sure if The Wraith is a horror film. It’s...The Wraith. Howard has a unique screen presence and gives odd line deliveries. He’s not a bad actor. Far from it. It’s just that he is one-of-a-kind, so his performances tend to veer toward the outrageous. Evilspeak is a mean little revenge-horror flick and it’s always great to see Clint Howard take center stage.