Fear No Evil (1981)
"More ambition than sense.” That was literally the slogan of a production company and the motto of a director I once worked with. To be clear, when I say production company, I mean a guy with a camera. I won’t name this person because although we’re not on speaking terms, I like to think I’m not a petty or vindictive man. That said, this “filmmaker” had the kind of enthusiasm and blind ambition that often inspires people to reach great heights...or join a cult. The fact is, filmmaking is incredibly difficult and his drive to succeed blinded me to the fact that this fella knew very little about the art of film production. The number of incomplete projects he cast and even shot footage for numbers in the double digits. Some films did get completed and they are what they are. Once it became clear that I’d made a mistake hitching my wagon to this guy, I jumped at the opportunity to be the assistant director on a horror feature and basically quit his “company.” It was a difficult shoot but I acquitted myself well and even got promoted to line producer. The film, Headsome (2013), was completed and gained distribution. That’s a lot more than I can say for those other unfinished movies. Sometimes, ambition really can produce extraordinary results. In other cases, if a director’s ambition far outweighs practical elements like money and time, then you might end up with something like Frank LaLoggia’s batshit crazy feature debut, Fear No Evil (1981).
I want so badly to call LaLoggia’s Lady in White (1988) a masterpiece. If I went off of nostalgia alone, then I could comfortably say it is one. From a critical standpoint, I’ll take a few steps back and say it’s a beautiful and deeply moving ghost story that only slightly suffers from an overwritten script and definitely suffers from a few rough special effects. I’ve commented on this aspect of the film before and it’s a forgivable offense. The highest compliment I can bestow upon Lady in White is that the story and performances are so compelling that the effects, which are mostly fine, don't detract from the excellent work onscreen. The fact of the matter is, LaLoggia has a unique vision and these were probably the best effects he could afford. It’s a testament to his ambition that he did his level best to get what was in his head onto the screen. The same theory can be applied to his messy and very entertaining fantasy horror film, Fear No Evil, also known as Lucifer and originally titled Mark of the Beast.
Religion plays an important role in LaLoggia’s work, but Fear No Evil may be the most overt example of his religiosity. After all, it’s literally about a battle between a trio of archangels and the Antichrist. How much more Biblical can you get? The film’s January release date is intriguing, not just because it’s a dump month, but more so because only two months later, The Final Conflict (1981, aka The Omen III) was released. This feels somewhat strategic, although Fear No Evil was independently produced but eventually distributed by Avco Embassy, meaning it probably wasn’t meant to compete with a major studio release. Although the films share a few minor similarities, it would be like comparing a fruit salad to a dump truck. They’re both things. That’s about all they have in common.
Before I take a deep dive into Hell, it’s important to note that LaLoggia’s career has been mired by studio interference. Once Avco Embassy became involved, the film was able to be finished thanks to some completion funds, but in many ways this was ironically a “deal with the devil” moment. The film got taken away from him, very much like The Haunted Heart (1995, aka Mother) was much later. Fear No Evil is all over the place and Frank LaLoggia can’t be solely blamed for its insanity. That said, I will be responding to what I see onscreen and that, is really something to behold.
For a little while there, I assumed we were somewhere in Europe. Following some baroque paintings of demons and angels, a piano tinkles and an old priest, Father Damon (John Holland, a bit player in his final film role whose career stretched back to 1937. He even appeared in the hilariously bad The Oscar), who is also the archangel Rafael, arrives at a foggy castle by boat. The castle is in major disrepair as Father Damon searches the ruins for someone, or something, and carries a large processional cross. In reality, this structure is the Boldt Castle, located in Alexandria Bay, New York and served as the inspiration for LaLoggia’s story.
A very shaky but alert handheld camera follows him as he finds both humans and animals hanging upside down within the castle walls. We get a good jump scare as a woman falls down on top of him. Her eyelids open, revealing freaky bright white eyes and she spits blood. Damon beats her head in until she expires. A screaming, shirtless figure appears down a hallway and Damon gives chase. We get a close look at this guy, and he’s got massive, rotted teeth and bright yellow eyes that seem translucent. He looks pretty freaky, but his hairdo brings to mind what Elvis would look like if he were the devil incarnate. Speaking of which, this guy turns out to be Lucifer (Richard Jay Silverthorn, author of the Fear No Evil novelization and the film’s makeup artist) and Damon/Rafael is here to destroy him. In a rudimentary but understandable cut, Lucifer briefly takes on the form of a woman to dissuade Damon from destroying him. To explain, the film cuts from a medium shot of Lucifer to a wide of a woman in his place. Although jarring, it’s also economical, as if LaLoggia figured he couldn’t afford to do a transformation, so why can’t the devil change form in the blink of an eye? Damon isn’t buying it, so Lucifer forces the cross out of Damon’s hand and impales himself. He utters his final, ominous words, “I will be reborn.”
To my surprise, we’re not in the dark ages after all. It’s really New York, circa 1963, and there’s a sweeping shot of many family members at a celebration while grandiose and melodramatic music plays. The score is by LaLoggia and David Spear, who was the genius composer Elmer Bernstein’s orchestrator/conductor of choice for many years. A baby boy named Andrew has been born and everyone is in high spirits. LaLoggia’s direction of actors doesn’t tend to err on the side of subtlety. Many of the performers in Fear No Evil are playing to the balcony seats. Although some members of the cast have acting experience, their work here pales in comparison to what the seasoned professionals of Lady in White did with LaLoggia’s dialogue. One of the biggest hams is Andrew’s father, Mr. Williams, played by Barry Cooper. It’s a very broad performance and in a scene with other fathers, LaLoggia’s direction to them must have been to just carouse and yell things.
They’re getting ready to take little Andrew to get baptized. If you’re savvy, you can probably guess that cutting from “I will be reborn” to a baby means it’s not likely this kid is going to be a minister. Andrew is a little fussy and I’m expecting an Omen-type reaction to entering the church. However, the film surprisingly goes another direction. As Father Daly, well played by prolific character actor Frank Birney, who would also appear in Bud the Chud (1989) and Critters 2 (1988), pours the holy water on Andrew over the baptismal font, there’s a gust of wind and blood begins to pour out of the child. The blood hits several attendees and drips into the font, causing it to overflow. Everyone is shocked and Mrs. Williams (Alice Sachs, in another big performance), grabs the baby and hustles out. I’m sensing the old “a mother’s love blinds her to the truth” situation here.
18 years pass via time-lapse as we hear the Williams argue about the boy while their once pristine home becomes decayed and ill-kempt. It’s an effective passage of time despite the melodramatic quality of the voice-overs. Mrs. Williams prepares Andrew’s birthday cake while Mr. Williams goes up to get him. In another economical effect, we see Andrew’s shadow next to his father’s, then it disappears, indicating that he’s passed through the door without being seen. LaLoggia makes a clever choice. Instead of attempting an effect that would likely be impossible to achieve, he indicates supernatural activity in a very basic, in-camera action. Another director could have just skipped a moment like this, but he goes for the gusto.
They don’t say it, but it looks as though the cake is of the devil’s food persuasion. Yeesh. I can’t imagine how Mr. Williams has functioned for eighteen years considering how trepidatious he is around Andrew. A very impressive and even mystifying effect takes place when one of the birthday candles isn’t lit, so Andrew (played by former child star Stefan Arngrim from Land of the Lost and who later played Drugstore in the fantastic Class of 1984), lights a match, causing the house lights and other candles to be snuffed out. I had to watch it twice and I’m still not certain how it was done. Mr. Williams accidentally drops the cake and a fight breaks out between the two parents. Mrs. Williams gets slapped and she falls over, causing an iron, randomly placed on a table, to fall down and konk her on the noggin. Andrew seems angry over his mother’s accident but nothing really comes of this. We only get more throbbing forehead acting from Cooper. “WHO ARE YOU?!” Mommy is locked in an upstairs room for the duration of the film, having suffered brain damage, I presume.
(Frank LaLoggia directing Fear No Evil)
A token hottie named Rita strides down the hallway, prompting a wildly inappropriate comment from a janitor, “Hoo! I like that!” She enters a classroom where the teacher comments on nearly every single student’s grade. It turns out Andrew is a straight-A student. One of them, Julie (Tony nominee Kathleen Rowe McAllen) is distracted by visions of Father Damon. Why? We’ll find out, but not until we establish the film’s major asshole, a Vinnie Barbarino clone named Tony (Daniel Eden). The film is set in the 80’s but it feels like the 50’s. Tony is a macho tough guy and he’s dating Marie (Roslyn Gugino), who is the ‘Queen B’ of a female gang called ‘The B’s’ that wear gold jackets. Gold jacket, green jacket, who gives a shit? What is this? Grease? It’s a silly detail, but it appears to only give Marie an excuse to slam her locker quite hard against the head of one of her underlings.
Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK” explodes onto the soundtrack as the camera pulls back from Andrew looking over his fellow students from above. Tony and Marie act like animals for a bit then have a quickie in the boiler room. There’s an odd cut as we immediately see Tony heading toward his car while Marie is already standing there. He’s led to believe the car door was unlocked, which is untrue, and he responds by slapping the hell out of Marie. A lot of physical violence here. Sure, that’s par for the course in many films, but it does look pretty real. Andrew returns a book Julie left in class and she flash cuts to scenes of being in bed with him. When her boyfriend Mark (Paul Haber) asks what’s wrong, she says, “I felt him touch me.” He just stares at her. So...no follow up?
Mr. Williams is a mailman on a bike (with no mail to deliver, it seems) and he stops by the home of Margaret (Elizabeth Hoffman, a 53-year-old making her film debut and who had a decent career, including a long stint on Sisters), who was a personal friend of Father Damon. We learn that Damon was tried and convicted for the murder of the young man in the opening scene. Margaret appears to be the only one who believed his story about the man being the devil. We discover she’s another archangel, specifically Mikhail. If she’s the archangel, shouldn’t she be globe-trotting and hunting for the Antichrist? She’s old and withered now, so I guess she has to die to be reincarnated? She repeats the phrase: Remember the promise.
One of the most inconsistent and frustrating plot points is whether Andrew knows he’s the Antichrist. We get scenes where he seems unaware of his powers, and yet we have other moments way before the climax in which he’s definitely doing devil stuff. It’s very confusing. Either way, he’s a fucking bastard because he kills a dog with an axe and drinks its blood in a large shed. What’s really disturbing about this particular scene is that the dead dog looks very real and even features more than one closeup of its face, leading me to wonder whether this is the corpse of a real dog. Andrew seems to be in complete control of his actions, but it’s still unclear what his deal is. Another bit that may be a nitpick since it’s a predictable idea in a movie that is anything but predictable, is Julie’s recurring dreams with Andrew. I assume she’ll be some sort of final sacrifice to bring about Armageddon. Spoilers, that never happens, but their actual relationship doesn’t lead anywhere either.
One of the scenes where he engages in some occult behavior is at the old castle. LaLoggia loves a good legend, even using one as the inspiration for Lady in White, and here he fills us in on the strange history of the ruined castle. It was built by Rosario Bonamo, who went mad near its completion and is rumored to have killed and buried many of the immigrants he hired to build the place. He was later murdered by Father Damon, so the connections are becoming clear.
Marie gets ice cream for breakfast (my kinda woman!) while Tony apologizes and drives her to school. I wouldn’t take that ride since she could spill her treat on his precious seat covers and catch a beating. Julie’s boyfriend, Mark, in a terribly-acted moment, proclaims his love and proposes to her after being accepted to Columbia.
The soundtrack for the film is pretty great, featuring the aforementioned Sex Pistols, as well as Patti Smith, Richard Hell, The Talking Heads, The Boomtown Rats, and playing out of Tony’s ride, "Blitzkrieg Bop" by The Ramones. Tony messes with Andrew by offering him pot and assures him “pot ain’t gonna make you grow tits.”
In the boy's locker room, we get one of the weirdest scenes in a very bizarre film. There are more limp penises than the average Judd Apatow-produced comedy as Tony taunts Andrew in a homophobic manner. He goes in for a condescending kiss but when their lips lock, they can’t break free from one another. After separating, Andrew huddles in a corner shaking while Tony has a freak-out. Los Angeles Times reviewer Linda Gross pointed out that the film, whether intentionally or not, has homophobic undertones, mainly due to Andrew’s appearance later and scenes like this one. It’s a fair question for a filmmaker who was likely raised Catholic and may have some very dark views of homosexuality. That’s merely speculative, of course. I just know the relationship between the Catholic Church and the gay community isn’t so great.
Another ham-tastic performance is waiting in the wings when Andrew is 54 seconds late to gym class. This prompts the over-the-top gym teacher (one and done Philip E. Roy) to force him to do “50 sit-ups and 50 push-ups!” My kid has to do laps if she doesn’t wear the right shoes to gym class, so I can’t imagine how she’d react to this prick. The boys engage in an aggressive game of dodgeball. Andrew is doing his push-ups while the teacher is screaming for the boys to kill each other. All of a sudden, Andrew’s head pops into frame and his eyes are bright yellow. Mark is the last man standing on the opposing side and the gym teacher yells to “kill the son of a bitch!” He grabs a dodgeball and, in a scene very reminiscent of Kenny’s death in the “Conjoined Fetus Lady” episode of South Park, hurls it at Mark, slamming him into the wall where he spits up blood. He’s very dead.
At the funeral, everyone from the movie seems to be there. Julie’s dreams of sleeping with Andrew are getting more frequent and she’s even slashed by him in one. She wakes up and finds deep cuts on her back and for a moment, she’s reflected in the mirror as an old woman. Margaret is hanging around in the background and Andrew stands several feet away. They don’t seem to know each other. Later, Andrew is on a swing for some reason and, as Margaret prays, it appears to hurt him, so he retaliates by having a tree branch fall on her head. It’s always amusing when an actor fake-applies water to a wound because if they really did it, the makeup artists would have to start all over again. She pretty much dabs around the blood, which goes from being a round gash to just a long scar in the next scene.
Julie, as it turns out, is the archangel Gabrielle (nee Gabriel), although she doesn’t seem to know it. She has visions of Damon’s mistreatment in prison and she’s drawn to Margaret. She accepts her responsibility of being a servant of God but the next morning seems to forget everything, prompting Margaret to force her to “Remember the promise.”
Absolutely, positively out of nowhere, we’re told there’s a one-night only production of the passion play, directed by Father Daly. This is the first time we’ve heard anything about this, but OK, I guess. The movie takes on a real stream-of-consciousness tone for quite a while at this point. The Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” plays while Tony pulls out a gun then sticks it up Marie’s dress. Mr. Williams, who disappeared for half the movie, drunkenly claims that his son is the devil at a bar. A fellow drunk (Joe LaLoggia) tells him he can top that. He let his son take his ‘79 Grand Prix out for a date and the little bastard took it to Spencer Speedway and dragged it, wrecking the car. This should end the scene on a funny note but Williams freaks and gets thrown out. He goes back to his house and shoots his invalid wife in the head. It seems like a prom is going on or something. It’s really not clear whether they’re dressed up for the play or what. Tony gets in a fight with his teacher, apparently because his shoe got pissed on in the bathroom. It’s as all over the place as this paragraph.
Andrew has finally accepted Beelzebub into his heart, so what does he do? Zombies. Holy shit, does he summon some zombies with a freaky incantation. Who are they? The immigrants Rosario Bonamo killed and buried on his property. Speaking in a weird, dubbed voice, Andrew commands them to kill. These zombies range from the Dawn of the Dead grey skin variety to the VHS cover guy, whose face is covered in discolored corn flakes (which really are corn flakes). They converge on the passion play, which actually contains a nice attention to detail where the actors onstage have an echo, indicating the play is indeed being performed on a stage. It’s a small observation, but admirable. The actor playing Jesus develops stigmata and bleeds from his wrists while various audience members begin to bleed from their foreheads where crosses would be put for Ash Wednesday.
Unseen forces cause extras to writhe and convulse. Lightning comes down to smite random people, others are possessed, and still others are attacked by zombies. Pretty much a total massacre. Interesting fun fact, LaLoggia didn’t want zombies in the film, but this is still a few years after Romero’s Dawn and Fulci’s Zombie, so the walking dead were still a hot commodity.
The B’s and their asshole boyfriends pick this night of all nights to hijack a boat and get drunk at the castle, so the zombies get them as well. Margaret and Julie show up with the special cross to ask for a boat, but the drunk boatman calls the cops since Julie has been missing. Again, we don’t know this until just now. The cops arrest them and they get driven to the passion play where all hell has broken loose. The cops gets mobbed, so what do the archangels do? Take the cop car right back to the docks and get the boat they wanted in the first place. Fuck me, this movie will give you whiplash.
We never see a zombie eat anyone, so I’m not sure what happens to Marie when she gets nabbed but I do know that Tony is a cowardly piece of shit because he bolts big time. Brenda, another random member of the B’s, joins Tony in a tower where Andrew enters, wearing dark lipstick and looking like a combination of Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill, Frank-N-Furter, and Mark McKinney in that KITH sketch where he picks up guys at hockey games. In a pretty wonderful callback, Andrew gives Tony tits! He opens up his shirt, and he’s got boobers. Probably from smoking that evil weed. Gateway drug alert!!! There’s an awkward knife fight and Tony stabs himself.
While Andrew takes Brenda to some kind of sacrificial altar, Margaret and Julie show up with a cloth over the cross. They just stand there for a minute and look at him, then he stabs Brenda. Immediately afterwards, they take the cloth off and he’s blasted with some heavenly light. If they’d taken that cloth off maybe a few seconds sooner, Brenda would still be alive. Also, her death on the slab doesn’t seem to mean anything. In a very amusing bit, Andrew screams, runs up the stairs, turns, screams again, then runs off. There’s an art to integrating VFX into footage that’s already been shot, and this film doesn’t have much of a knack for it. It looks completely laid over the actors and they’re clearly reacting to nothing.
Finally cornering Andrew, Margaret repeats the lord’s prayer, which Andrew repeats so he’s maybe, kinda fighting it? At one point, he keeps repeating the “as is” part over and over, making it sound like he’s going to sneeze. Julie stands in the background with the cross, looking pretty bored. Andrew turns into Mark to tempt Julie and then he takes his final form, which seems to be a demon with mutton chops or at least the cousin of the Lady in the Radiator from Eraserhead (1977). He tosses Margaret out of his way but the cross finally works, shooting teeny weeny laser beams at his chest. Julie appears to undress and then the three spirits join together in a laser light show ending that’s alternately ridiculous, terrible, and amazing. We get a final big bang…then credits. Whoa! THAT’S the end?! The Fear No Evil theme song plays, which sounds pretty bad compared to the legitimate classics on the soundtrack.
One tidbit I discovered is that Fear No Evil received a long-retired Saturn Award for Best Low-Budget Film. I was fascinated by this odd award that only lasted a few years. The nominees and winners included The Evil Dead (the last to win the award before it was removed), The Clonus Horror, Forbidden Zone, Ms. 45, Maniac, Madman, Alice, Sweet Alice, Android, and Eating Raoul. By the way, it’s a little tricky regarding what the budget was, as IMDB claims 840k while Wikipedia indicates that it was 1.5 million. Who knows?
Compared to Lady in White, this movie is an absolute mess. Things just happen with very little rhyme or reason. That said, it’s also a blast and shows a filmmaker brimming with ideas. It’s rarely boring, save for the Margaret and Julie sequences, and Fred Goodich’s cinematography is solid. LaLoggia’s last feature would be 1995’s direct-to-video The Haunted Heart (aka Mother), which would be taken by his producer and recut without his permission. I used to think that the reason Lady in White was so good was because LaLoggia only had one great story to tell. Fear No Evil proves that he had plenty of stories to tell. Maybe too many. In this case, he tried to cram everything into one movie, resulting in a totally unique and ludicrous, though very entertaining, film.