I have no idea why ‘Evilspeak’ made the DPP’s “video nasties” list back in the 1980s, unless the guardians of public morality were concerned that impressionable teenagers the length and breadth of the British Isles would, en masse, begin typing screeds of Latin onto computer screens, hit the enter key and be rewarded with translations of Satanic prose, after which said computer would play an instrumental if entirely unexplained part in conjuring forth an ancient evil from the depths of etc. etc. etc.
I’m prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. This was the ’80s, after all, and Hollywood was happily feeding the public any number of misconceptions about the operational capacities of the personal computer. One of the great clichés of the era is the character typing in a question on a DOS prompt screen backgrounded by shimmering green – usually a question to do with the projected course of an asteroid heading towards earth, or the rate of infection if the virus/alien/evil thingy isn’t stopped – hitting enter and the computer throwing up the answer immediately. No faffing about downloading or running a programme, sifting through mounds of returned data, clicking through endless installation wizards on the death of a thousand error messages. No, siree, nuthin’ like that. Just type a question, hit a key, get an answer. I can only imagine that had HAL900 been a ZX Spectrum plugged into the back of an analogue TV the size of a breezeblock and hooked up to a tape recorder that took two and a half hours to load Space Invaders, then all would have been well with the Jupiter mission and there wouldn’t have been any of that pod bay doors malarkey. Mind you, the ’80s was also the decade of teenagers hacking into the entire North American defence system and fucking around with all kinds of hardware programmed by their elders and betters that was supposed to be failsafe, so I guess there was at least some pretence at realism.
But I digress. ‘Evilspeak’, un film de Eric Weston, tells the tale of Stanley Coopersmith (Clint Howard), a “welfare case” at a once-prestigious military academy who is roundly despised by his fellow cadets. That’s “despised” as in “bullied viciously at every opportunity”. He’s equally unpopular with the staff, who either (in the case of the principal) turn a blind eye to his victimization or (pace the football coach) actively encourage it.
One day, on a punishment detail cleaning out the basement – the fiefdom of Sarge (R.G. Armstrong, notching up another Satanic entry on the CV), a drunkard and paedophile (“I’m gonna show you how I make a boy into a little girl”) – he comes across the journal of Father Esteban (Richard Moll), an exiled former priest turned Satanist. We meet Esteban in the prologue, where the Spanish clergy denounce him as a heretic and cast him out of both church and country. Esteban doesn’t seem overly bothered by this, and happily stages a Black Mass on the beach before he takes his leave. And if that’s not a “fuck you” to authority, I don’t know what is.
Coopersmith, his inability on the parade ground or football field compensated for by his IT skills, uses a computer to decipher Esteban’s arcane scribblings. The computer, seemingly possessed by Esteban’s spirit, helpfully delineates all the elements Coopersmith needs to enact his own Black Mass. Partly to keep his discovery under wraps and partly to avoid his tormentors, Coopersmith decamps to the basement, having swiped some computer equipment from class and some consecrated host (one of the ingredients for his Satan-summoning session) from the chapel. This latter acquisition perks the suspicions of fair-weather priest Reverend Jameson (Joseph Cortese).
The accepted wisdom, the way the narrative is shaping up at this point, would be: Coopersmith spends half the movie getting his ass kicked; Coopersmith conjures ol’ Scratch; Coopersmith and his new best bud spend the rest of the movie taking gory revenge on the bullies one by one. But Weston doesn’t entirely do the expected thing. True, he adheres to enough of the genre staples (particularly a shower scene so gratuitous it’s magnificent) to mark ‘Evilspeak’ as inarguably a product of both its time and its genre; but he also fucks around with the expected narrative arc.
Firstly, the journal falls out of Coopersmith’s hands for a portion of the running time and is appropriated by airhead secretary Miss Friedemeyer (Lynn Hancock). A subplot regarding wild boars kicks in at this point, and culminates in a moment of jaw-dropping what-the-fuckery as the aforementioned gratuitous shower scene segues into entrail-munching notoriety.
Secondly, Coopersmith’s attempts to conduct the Black Mass are pretty abject. He’s continually lacking something, and scene after scene ends with him shutting the computer down as he realizes he’s failed again … only for the screen to flicker back into life after he’s gone. The last two requirements of the ritual are provided purely by accident. No spoilers, but there’s irony aplenty in the bullies’ complicity.
Thirdly, Coopersmith all but abandons his plans for harnessing evil when he takes in a puppy and deludes himself that there’s a girl who maybe likes him a bit. Yes, you read that right: our much-maligned, badly bullied and vehemently victimized man of the moment lets his plans for preternatural payback fall by the wayside when somebody gives him a dog.
Of course, the anti-Coopersmith league aren’t going to let him lapse into a state of dewey-eyed enjoyment of life, and a couple of dirty deeds later the scene is set for Satanic shenanigans. After teasing the audience with Coopersmith’s never-quite-completed Black Mass for way over three quarters of the running time, Weston raises hell (the expression used advisedly) in the last fifteen minutes. And he delivers the goods in gory fashion, his fire and brimstone finale coming on a whole lot more impressive than its budget might have suggested.
In an age where technology has outpaced what was considered cutting edge (or even outright sci-fi supposition) two or three decades ago, ‘Evilspeak’ is laughable in many respects. It’s also pretty well done for a low-budget shocker; and, as the presence of Armstrong and Cortese in the cast attest, it cares a little more than most of its ilk about character and performance. Ultimately, it’s an oddball experience and its “video nasty” stigma implies an aesthetic that it only partly lives up to, but as a time-capsule movie with ten minutes of no-nonsense blood and guts at its denouement and an approach to the subject matter that doesn’t involve neophytes in robes dancing around burning trees and drawing pentagrams in chickens’ blood, it’s definitely worth a watch.