Demian Rugna’s terrifying possession film When evil lurks — now available to stream on Shudder — breaks the rules of the subgenre in all sorts of startling ways. For one, it’s not a religious film at all, although most exorcism films are. On the other hand, the demon-faced victims in his film aren’t fighting a faith or something they don’t understand. They all know the rules for dealing with the hideous, bloated creatures that result from demon possession – red, or as the English subtitles say, “the rotten one”. There’s even a little didactic song about rot, presented in the film as something akin to a children’s lullaby.
So if everyone knows how to safely deal with demons, why is the movie so scary? Because the rules—including “stay away from electricity and electrical appliances, demons can travel through them” and “only kill the possessed in certain specific ways”—require effort and self-control, and people are often greedy, lazy, or impulsive. “It’s too hard,” Rugna told Polygon at Fantastic Fest 2023 in Austin, Texas. “You have to follow the rules because the demon wants to be with you, but it’s too hard for us to run away from the cities, trying to avoid the electricity, to avoid even thinking about the devil.”
When evil lurks is an extremely scary movie, in part because it’s as much about the power we give our personal demons as it is about all kinds of supernatural powers. Unlike movies like The Exorcist and its many sequels and reboots, the characters of Rugna cannot expect help from organized religion or from God. “I have no religion,” said the principal. “And I hate religion as a business. I love religion as faith or as helping people. But not as a business.” Instead, the characters in the When evil lurks they must rely on each other and on their own courage and discipline. This is going badly, to say the least.
They also have to rely on institutions set up to help them. Early in the film, it becomes clear that the government has systems in place to deal with the encarnado, and those systems have failed entirely due to bureaucratic indifference and laziness. Rugna’s inspiration for the film explains a lot about where this theme came from: as he told the Fantastic Fest audience in a Q&A after the film’s premiere, he got the idea for When evil lurks from a series of news stories about pesticides on farms in his native Argentina causing widespread health problems.
“The owners of these lands are contaminating these fields with glyphosate to kill insects – a pesticide,” he told Q&A. “There are a lot of people who work in these fields and get cancer. You will probably see a young child with cancer because they are workers. They didn’t say anything – or if they did, nobody knew. He suggests that corporate apathy about worker health and the way the issue has arisen “in the middle of nowhere,” where it’s easy for profiteers and city dwellers to ignore the impact of their choices, made him think about the idea of lurking evils are free to spread.
“The pesticide infected them,” Rugna told Polygon. “Children are born with cancer. Sometimes you see something on the news, but then there’s nothing more to say and you forget the image. They are in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of poverty. They have to do work for less than a few dollars and they are all sick. Once you turn off the TV, you forget, but they’re still there, they’re still likely to die.
He said it was too often the case that “the people who work the land” were “left behind” by the system. “When I decided to make a film with some kind of exorcism, I thought, OK, but what if people can’t get to a priest? All the Exorcist movies take place in the city, in a big house. But what if we are in the middle of nowhere, in a poor house, with poor people that no one cares about? Even the owner of the land wants to get rid of them, burn their houses. This happens in my own country all the time – not the demons, [but the rest].”
All that said, while Rugna emphasizes how important realism in acting, relationships, and setting is to him in making the film, he laughs at the idea that realism in terms of reflecting the real world is important in horror. “You can watch a movie just for fun,” he said. “For me, the most important thing is to be funny. If you have the opportunity to have a reflection, it serves a dual purpose. But for me it’s not completely necessary.
He said that social inspirations just naturally made their way into the writing because they were part of his background. He didn’t set out to make a film with a message, just one to scare the audience. “I’ve noticed for myself in my movies, for a bigger horror story, I want to make you suffer,” he said. “And the social element just comes along with my culture.”
Photo: Shudder/IFC Films
Ironically for a film inspired by bureaucratic indifference to the suffering of children, however, one of his film’s greatest limitations was the bureaucratic regulations on how he could handle his child cast. When evil lurks is unusually brutal to its child characters, with graphic scenes of child suffering, mutilation and death. In response to a question from the audience at the Q&A about how he protected the child actors, Rugna grinned and explained how his production walked the actors’ parents through their safety plans.
“It will take me two hours to talk about the process of working with parents,” he said. “It’s too funny because we took care of the parents – we thought, Ok, we want to share the whole script. We were scared of the parents’ reaction. […] Parents were too excited to let their kids in our movie. You can’t imagine. […] When the parents read the script and we’re like, The child will be bitten by a dog and crushed by a car — “Oh, I love the script! Got it!'”
But the government was much more restrictive, Rugna said. Among other things, despite the violence of the scenes involving children, they were not allowed to have artificial blood on the children’s skin at any time. In another scene, a teenager is not allowed to hold a gun during an emotional monologue. “The kids were terrible to work with all the time,” he said, laughing. “Not for the kids, for the rules.”
When evil lurks is streaming on Shudder now.