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When Evil Lurks is one of the best-reviewed horror movies of 2023. Many people also say it is one of the most disturbing films they’ve seen in a long time. When Evil Lurks is from Argentinian filmmaker Demián Rugna, and it is his first feature since the also-excellent Terrified (2017). When looking at both When Evil Lurks and Terrified, it’s clear that Demián Rugna knows how to unsettle audiences. But what is it about When Evil Lurks that makes it so uncomfortable for so many viewers? Five main reasons stand out for why the film is so disturbing.
A note before we get started. If you haven’t seen When Evil Lurks yet, bookmark this article, go watch the movie, and then come back here and read on. There are major spoilers throughout this entire article, and they are all moments you really don’t want to know about before you watch When Evil Lurks.
If you watch a lot of horror, it probably takes something quite unique to catch you by surprise. It often seems like just about every setup for a scene of violence has been done already. Though familiarity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, when a horror movie can surprise you with unsettling violence, it is a special moment. For that reason, director Demián Rugna should be applauded for crafting multiple moments just like that in When Evil Lurks.
The first example of unexpected brutality happens early in the film when Ruiz (Luis Ziembrowski) has a shotgun pointed at a goat that he and his wife Jimena (Desirée Salgueiro) know is being influenced by a demonic force. It is already established that using guns on possessed beings only makes things worse, so when Jimena grabs an axe, the expectation is that she wants Ruiz to use the axe instead of the gun. That doesn’t happen though. Jimena kills Ruiz, but that’s not even the most unexpectedly brutal part. Jimena then kneels down and points the axe towards her head… and she kills herself by chopping herself in the face multiple times. It takes a few whacks, all of which we see in an uncomfortable closeup.
The most brutal scene is later in the movie. It is when the little girl, Vicky (Lucrecia Nirón Talazac), is suddenly attacked by her family’s dog, Roger. The first bite comes suddenly when both Vicky and the dog are framed close together in the foreground of a shot. Many movies might cut away at this point, but the audience is repeatedly shown images of Roger attacking Vicky as the girl’s brother tries to get the attention of the adults in the room. It is a chaotic scene that feels like it lasts for an agonizingly long time, though in reality it takes less than a minute, and the actual images of the attack are only on-screen for a few brief seconds. The effect is brutal though, and it’s one of the most-discussed scenes in When Evil Lurks.
No One is Safe
Speaking of the scene in which Vicky is attacked by her dog, that is one of the best examples of how When Evil Lurks instills in the viewer the idea that no one is safe. Children being victims is not new within the horror genre, but it can be especially unnerving when the on-screen portrayal of them is handled the way it is in When Evil Lurks. Vicky isn’t the only child killed in the movie. Her brother Santino (Marcelo Michinaux) is also seen dead in a harrowing moment later in the film when we see his mother Sabrina (Virginia Garófalo), who was killed and resurrected by possession, eating Santino’s brains out of his open skull.
When Evil Lurks puts children at the center of the horror with multiple child deaths and possessions. But they aren’t the only recipients of the movie’s most brutal moments. The dog dies too, as does a pregnant woman. By about one-third of the way through the film, it feels as if no one is off limits when it comes to horrible things happening to them. By the end, it seems like the only people who might be “safe” are Pedro (Ezequiel Rodríguez) and his brother Jimi (Demián Salomón), but “safe” is very much a relative term when used in the context of When Evil Lurks.
Fear of the Unknown
Keeping the audience off-balance is one of the best things When Evil Lurks does. It achieves a feeling of uncertainty by doling out information sparingly, leaving many aspects of its story unknown until just the right moment. In this way it puts the viewers in a position similar to brothers Pedro and Jimi, making us feel a tension similar to what those characters are going through.
For example, the brothers encounter their first “rotten,” a person possessed and impregnated with a demonic being, early in the movie. They know there are people who deal with this sort of thing, but they aren’t sure of how to deal with it themselves. They admit that they don’t know what to do, but they follow the example of their neighbor Ruiz despite the overwhelming feeling that they’re handling the situation incorrectly. This leads to a tension that builds and builds as they continue to make decisions based on incomplete information.
Other examples of the unknown fueling the film’s sense of unease and fear include the seven rules that should be followed when dealing with a possessed person. A couple of the rules are spoken like superstitions early in the movie, giving us little confidence that we’re getting the full picture. It’s not until halfway through that we hear six of the seven rules. Each rule explanation brings up more questions, and as we hear them we try to think back about when and how each rule was already broken. Even after we hear the seventh rule (don’t fear death), the exact method of “cleaning” a possessed person is never revealed. We know as much as Pedro knows, which helps us understand his rash decisions even when we know he is wrong. This understanding of what went wrong, combined with the ambiguous nature of the demonic force, helps make When Evil Lurks as disturbing as it is.
Proper foreshadowing can turn a good horror movie into a great one. It’s chilling to see something horrific, then to think back and realize the movie basically told you what was going to happen. When Evil Lurks uses foreshadowing extremely well in a few different ways. One of the best examples connects the beginning and the end of the movie. Pedro and Jimi hear five gunshots in the distance, and Pedro recognizes that the shots came from a revolver. The next morning the body of a cleaner is found, and shortly after that we see that Eduardo (Ricardo Velázquez), the brother of the first “rotten” we see, has a revolver. When Jimi later takes the gun, it is loaded with five bullets. The spacing of these events is such that viewers might not put it all together, but it is revealed at the end of the movie that Eduardo killed the cleaner because he was being influenced by the evil force.
Another fantastic example of foreshadowing concerns Pedro’s son Jair (Emilio Vodanovich). One of the rules to avoid possession is that you shouldn’t use the name of the demon. As Jair’s grandmother explains this, Jair, who is autistic, repeats the names his grandmother says. For viewers, this is big signal that he’s going to be possessed, but that’s not the end of it. Jair becomes fixated on food, specifically ice cream. It’s a personal trait that his father Pedro is used to dealing with. At a certain point we also hear a story about a possessed person who ate their whole family, which is the only other discussion of eating that stands out. And finally, we see Jair acting unlike himself when he is left alone with his grandmother.
What happens when Jair and his grandmother are together is left a mystery until the end of the movie when Jair coughs up blood, hair, and his grandmother’s necklace. Like Pedro, audiences likely suspected what happened, but it is still disturbing when it’s revealed. It’s also even more heartbreaking when we remember that Jimi was explicitly told that Jair was possessed, but he still chose to leave him alone with the elderly woman.
Other, quicker examples of foreshadowing include the dog smelling Pedro’s clothes before attacking Vicky, even though Pedro knew that his contaminated clothes were likely to spread the demon’s influence. Also, early in the movie when Pedro, Jimi, and Ruiz are taking the rotten away to dump him somewhere far from town, they encounter a child who they suspect is on his way to school. This foreshadows the end of the movie when the rotten is found in the school with a group of kids. All of this foreshadowing adds up to make the movie feel like a cruel fate, an inescapable and wholly disturbing tragedy.
The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions
Maybe the most disturbing part of When Evil Lurks is when the audience realizes that everything could have been avoided. Pedro, when attempting to do the right thing, makes the situation exponentially worse for himself and everyone around him. Pedro is far from perfect, but he is relatable in many ways. He cares for his family, and even though he has darkness in his past which isn’t fully explored, it’s clear that he will do anything for the people he loves. But it’s his dedication to them paired with his tragic character flaws that get nearly all of them killed (everyone except for his brother).
If Pedro had left town when he and his brother realized there was a possessed person nearby, everyone might have been okay. If he hadn’t argued with the local police when trying to find out why they hadn’t dealt with the rotten person near his land, they might have sent a new cleaner. If he hadn’t rushed to get his ex-wife and children out of town while wearing his contaminated clothes, he wouldn’t have taken the demon’s influence into the city. If he’d listened to the cleaner at the end of the movie, he wouldn’t have left her alone to be killed which is exactly what she said would happen.
Nearly everything Pedro does in When Evil Lurks is with good intentions, but he can’t get out of his own way. His internal frustration and anger rises to the surface too often. It is heavily implied that these kinds of actions led to the end of his marriage (a restraining order is mentioned by his ex-wife), and those types of actions led to him helping facilitate the birth to a literal demon. So, even though When Evil Lurks is about supernatural entities, the downfall of its main character comes from a collection of very human flaws. When you view the movie in that context, it makes it all the more heartbreaking and disturbing.