Welcome back to our newly revamped “Retro Reviews” column, where we explore both the movies you know and love, as well as the oft overlooked gems you should be spending more time with. Our fourth entry is the ultimate “revenge of the nerd” film, Evilspeak (1981)…
There was no shortage of vengeful nerds in 1980s horror cinema. Movies like Vernon Zimmerman’s Fade to Black, Frank LaLoggia’s Fear No Evil, and Robert Englund’s 976-Evil provided picked-on geeks with characters they could identify with, while also simultaneously indulging in the revenge fantasies they probably harbored in the darkest regions of their soul. In a post-Columbine world, these movies are somewhat of a rarity, as Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris showed us all how ugly the vengeance of those oppressed and bullied by the jocks and the prom queens could be when it wasn’t limited to innocuous fantasy.
But before their horrifying rampage (not to mention the epidemic of terrifying school shootings that arrived in the wake of Littleton), horror films were unafraid to be completely un-PC, allowing their often sniveling-yet-sympathetic leads to lay waste to those who caused them to live in fear every day. And none were as gleefully bonkers as Eric Weston’s Evilspeak, a somewhat inept yet totally entertaining film that helped birth the cinematic career of one of the ultimate avatars for persecuted nebbishes, Clint Howard.
Eveyone’s known a boy like Stanley Coopersmith (Howard) at least once in their lives. Shy, slightly pudgy, athletically maladroit yet sorta smart (but not like a genius or anything), he’s the perfect target for ‘tough guys’ in a regular high school. Put him in a military academy (that just happens to be built on the grave of a former black sorcerer) and you have a recipe for disaster. Coopersmith is beaten and taunted, even by his own soccer coach. However, once he stumbles upon a tomb in the school chapel’s basement, he puts his computers to work in order to translate the ancient, pentagram-covered texts contained within. His goal — to summon the spirit of Father Esteban (Richard Moll), a Satanic priest who vowed, years ago, that he would return to this mortal plane in order to carry out his Master’s work.
Clint Howard really only works in two modes here, but both are great so his lack of range really doesn’t matter. Either petulantly mumbling and whining while the other bigger, stronger kids force their will upon him or screaming in fits of rage, Howard’s inhabitation of Coopersmith is far from a tour-de-force. Yet the young actor feels so authentic in the role that you can’t help but empathize with the poor boy, even as he’s transformed into a floating, wide-eyed spawn from hell who wields a medieval sword and tasks a horde of flesh-eating pigs to do his dirtiest work.
Richard Moll has had a really weird, often forgotten career. A TV actor who got his start in the late 60s and then went on to appear on numerous sitcoms (including Welcome Back, Kotter and Happy Days) in the 70s, the real apex of his bizarre précis came in 1984, when he first appeared as the now-iconic Nostradamus ‘Bull’ Shannon, the imposing but lovable bailiff on Night Court. But in-between the 192 episodes of the NBC sitcom he appeared in, Moll took numerous roles in outlandish B-Movies such as Metalstorm: The Destrucion of Jared Syd and Night Train to Terror. While Evilspeak predates Night Court by a few years, it acts as a kind of beginning to a great triple feature that includes both Albert Pyun’s The Sword and the Sorcerer and the Charles Band directorial circle-jerk that is Ragewar (a/k/a The Dungeonmaster). In each, Moll plays a kind of dark wizard, wanting to both rule and destroy the world with his mastery of the mystical arts.
Sadly, Evilspeak may contain the least flamboyant fantasy role of Richard Moll’s career, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less entertaining. As Father Esteban, the Satanic priest whose deadly, ancient magic is the picture’s driving force, Moll mugs his way into the hearts of horror fans, sneering and commanding his followers to give themselves to Satan. It’s yet another total goofball genre turn from an actor who made his mortgage payments for almost a decade in such pictures. There’s a kind of campy charm to watching Evilspeak in 2014, as the pop culture ubiquity of “Bull from Night Court” transforms what was probably never a truly terrifying role into a rubber-faced bit of revisionist self-parody.
Moll isn’t the only character actor to seemingly pop out of nowhere. Even casual film fans will recognize Lenny Montana, who is more commonly known as “Luca Brasi from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather“. Playing the kindly school chef, Jake, Montana still brings the Brooklyn accent to a role that it probably isn’t appropriate for, but his warm, “big lug” screen presence is certainly welcome. Jake’s moments with Coopersmith actually add a weird, emotional core to what otherwise would be a disposable cash-in on the early 80s horror craze. You end up caring about Coopersmith as a human being who actually has people who love him, thus rendering his ultimate fate that much more piteous when it finally arrives. Meanwhile, Sam Peckinpah regular R.G. Armstrong does his damndest to undo all of Jake’s love, storming about the bowels of the school, drinking and threatening Coppersmith while you desperately try to figure out just what his job at the academy really is (janitor, I guess?).
None of this would matter if the finale of Evilspeak didn’t absolutely deliver one of the most insane bits of B-Movie bloodletting ever. Coopersmith’s inevitable Carrie White-style massacre of Bubba (Don Stark) and the other bullies is effervescent and exhilarating while also feeling totally tragic. In a preceding moment of true heartlessness, the crew of hooligans finally figure out how they can hurt the poor, bumbling dweeb in a way that is scarring to both the character and the audience. It sends the young cadet completely over the edge, as he gives in to the dark powers he’s been flirting with and allows them to overtake his doughy body. Commanding a legion of flesh hungry hogs while levitating and wielding a sword, the academy’s chapel becomes a veritable slaughterhouse where no one gets out alive. Weston’s direction suddenly stops feeling pedestrian, a dormant inventiveness coming alive as his camera captures every severed limb and geyser of blood with a maniacal glee that’s truly unsettling. He indulges the revenge fantasy so thoroughly that Evilspeak suddenly feels somewhat dangerous; an exorcism of sorts for a filmmaker who feels like he’s fostering inner demons I’m now somewhat scared to ask about.
There will undoubtedly be some who are put off by the rough exterior of what is essentially a VHS relic, and that rejection is entirely justified. With Evilspeak, Weston hasn’t crafted some kind of unheralded classic, lost to the sands of time via format changeovers or audience neglect. If anything, the film is a legitimate example of a movie the usually condescending or completely misused term “cult classic” was invented to describe, for there is a very distinct niche it speaks to. But for those willing to suffer a bit of schlock in order to mine a significant amount of genuine entertainment and horror, Evilspeak will be a true delight. Undeniably a product of its times, Eric Weston and Clint Howard have still delivered a monument to the bullied and the broken, allowing them a possibly unhealthy amount of catharsis via video carnage.
Evilspeak is available for pre-order on beautiful blu-ray courtesy of the good folks at Shout!/Scream Factory. The disc hits stores May 13.