A Name for Evil

A Name for Evil is an obscure little haunted-house film, produced in 1973 by an outfit called "Penthouse Films". Whether this is the same Penthouse Films that churned out Caligula a few years later, I don't know. I wouldn't be surprised, though, since this film's main attraction is:

Robert Culp naked.

Somehow I don't think that's quite enough to justify the film's title.

A Name For Evil tries very hard to establish itself as a male version of The Haunting. Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel, and Robert Wise's excellent movie of 1963, revolved around the experiences of Eleanor Vance, a fragile woman entering middle-age. Having been beaten into submission and servitude early in life by her family, Eleanor is incapable of finding her place in the wider world. Like a child, she yearns to escape from reality. It's never clear, in the novel or the film, if The Haunting is an actual ghost story, or if the "haunting" is related to Eleanor's frequent flights into delusion. A Name For Evil's protagonist John Blake is equally unstable, and equally given to adolescent fantasy as an escape from his problems. But Blake has not been ground down by a life of drudgery: quite the opposite. He's a spoiled child grown old, unused to facing difficult situations. His escapes are much different in character from Eleanor's, but the result is mostly the same: we are never supposed to be sure if the things we see are really happening, or if our hero is losing his mind.

As the story opens, architect John Blake (Culp) is experiencing a mid-life crisis. He has grown sick of building faceless, soulless glass boxes for faceless, soulless corporations, and has decided to give up his business and move to the country. Before we even see Blake, we hear him grousing about his life and work, over a montage of construction equipment. I think the opening is intended to be "arty", but instead it looks cheap. In fact, it reminds me of the stock footage scenes in Glen or Glenda?. From the montage, we move to a shot of the architect's office door, where we hear Blake arguing with his partner. Again, we don't see him. This is not a good way to introduce a character... chances are the audience will find it more difficult to identify with him if they don't see him first, and Blake is a character that really needs help to appear sympathetic to the viewers. When we finally do get to see him, he's throwing a slightly hysterical tantrum, as he throws his possessions into a cardboard box and stalks out on his secretary.

He goes back to his wife Joanna, played in an appropriately bitchy fashion by Samantha Eggar. Blake has frequent reveries in which he imagines Joanna to be a pliable, sensual creature who adores him unquestioningly. Nothing could be further from the truth. She obviously puts up with him only because he is wealthy and because he does his job capably. He allows her to maintain her position among their peers. Otherwise, she finds him contemptible, and when he decides to give up his job, she takes the news with frosty skepticism.

Blake tries to show his wife how serious he is about cutting his ties to the city by heaving his television out the window of his apartment. On one hand, this is a pretty dramatic gesture, since his apartment is some 20 stories off the ground, and since a TV of that sort was probably pretty expensive in the early 70's. On the other hand, this gives a pretty good idea of Blake's essential irresponsibility: not only is it a rather foolish gesture, but he also failed to look before he hurled the TV. There could easily have been someone walking below. But that's Blake for you: he doesn't think through to the results of what he does. Blake's retreat will have disastrous consequences, and the climax of the film will make reference to this unthinking (if memorable) act.

Blake drags his wife off to the woods, where his great-grandfather's Civil War-era farmhouse, called "the Grove", stands. No one has lived in the old house for a while. There had been tenants there, but for some reason they had left without warning... and without telling Blake. When Blake and Joanna arrive, they find the place deserted and in ruins. The enormously fat caretaker is unable to give a satisfactory account of what happened to make the tenants leave, but he does mumble that Blake's ancestor, "the Major", doesn't want visitors. As Blake wanders through the remains of the house, he thinks he sees a shadowy figure just out-of-vision; a whispery voice warns him to get away.

Blake announces to his wife that he's decided to stay and rebuild the house. Joanna responds by telling him exactly what she thinks of him. Her analysis of his character is no less cruel for being accurate. It's made painfully clear through the course of the movie that this marriage is pure hell; but if Blake is weak and unstable, his wife is a shrew, and equally responsible for their shared misery. Still, in this case, Blake has made up his mind, and at last Joanna decides to stay for a while... at least until Blake fails and needs to taken home.

Blake enlists the help of a Wise Local Salt-of-the-Earth Mechanic-cum-Preacher (whose dialog sounds like he's reading fortune cookies, and who may also be a figment of Blake's imagination), to hire local help for rebuilding the Grove. Bit by bit, the house comes together, and bit by bit Blake comes apart.

The haunting of the Grove, if there is a haunting at all, is pretty low-key. There's really only one effectively eerie moment that Blake and his wife both experience: in the remains of the house, they find a closed-off room, untouched and undecayed in many years. It's almost as though the Major had been sitting in that room only a few moments before. Blake remains in the mysterious room while Joanna goes to investigate the next part of the house. He's disturbed to see the shadow of a man follow her through the door. What's more, she continues talking as though he -- or someone -- was in the room with her...

As work on the house progresses, and the house becomes more liveable, some "friends" from the city stop by for a visit. Their dinner together is more like a Woody Allen parody than a scene in a horror movie: in one shot, the man is seen only as a mouth in closeup, blithering on endlessly, while his wife and Blake's wife exchange malicious gossip in the far background. Blake feels nauseated by the self-important city folks, and this just serves to drive him still further from Joanna.

Then, as Blake stomps out of the house (once again the loser in a bitter confrontation with Joanna), he sees the Major's white horse in front of him. Acting on impulse, he leaps onto the horse, which carries him off at full speed and dumps him into the middle of a party at the local bar.

At this point, we can be sure that Blake and reality have parted company. The country festival is unlike any you could possibly imagine. The locals welcome Blake into their midst like a long-lost friend, and soon everybody is drinking and dancing with wild abandon. The band starts playing an awfully pretentious song, and before long the revelers (including RRobertCulp!) start taking off their clothes and having an orgy...

Something tells me that this is not typical behavior in isolated rural communities, at least not the sort of behavior that a stranger from the city would be invited to participate in. Anyway, Blake lets it all hang out for an uncomfortably long time. He finally winds up in the arms of a sweet young thing who loves to hear him pontificate while they have sex.

Maybe this was a little more believable when the film was made. As hard as it is to believe today, there was a time when men actually wanted to be what we now look on with loathing as "the man of the 70's". Does that sound incredible? I can prove it: a few months ago, my wife bought a box of magazines at a thrift shop, and much to her delight, she found a stash of vintage men's magazines from the 70's and early, early 80's mixed in with them. They're hilarious, and every bit as silly to modern sensibilities as the backwoods love-in. The funniest thing about them -- both the magazines and the movie's Zabriskie Point riff -- is that they were written to be taken seriously. So perhaps audiences of the time could have suspended their disbelief at Blake's pathetic Bob Guccione imitation, and at the fact that anyone would let him get away with it. To us, watching today, there is no possibility of ambiguity: this has just got to be Blake's hallucination. The fact that the girl's name is Luanna, and his wife's is Joanna, further convinces us that we're sharing Blake's delusion.

When Blake stumbles home in the grey light or morning, he finds that someone's been sleeping in his bed. Could it be... the Major? Well, it might have been a possibility a few scenes ago. Unfortunately, we saw so little haunting over the past hour, and so much ridiculous skin for the last fifteen minutes, that ghosts are just about the last things on our minds.

Very gradually, through a long series of mutual misunderstandings, a different story starts to come out: according to Joanna, Blake never left on any horse. Instead, he came back, beat her with his fists, and then curled up on the edge of the bed, wanking constantly like a thirteen-year-old. After the painfully stilted orgy scene, it's difficult not to accept her side of the story as what really happened, but we'll give the writer/director the benefit of the doubt and press on.

Up until the orgy and its consequences, the film does a pretty good job of building some sympathy for Blake -- who is basically an unlikeable character. It's not easy to keep an audience's attention on a man who's so totally self-absorbed and childish. At heart, though, Blake is right: his old existence, his relationship with his wife and friends, everything was out of balance. He is also absolutely right to rebel; the trouble is he too ineffectual to make his rebellion mean anything. By contrast, Joanna is solidly based in reality -- but she's too mean-spirited for her insight to do anybody any good.

It becomes more difficult to see Blake as anything other than a fool as he continues an affair with a girl who probably doesn't even exist. Blake's dream-world eventually turns ugly, as his hallucinations spiral out of control. The climax comes very abruptly: even though you could see it coming from the beginning of the film, the timing comes as a complete surprise.

In addition to echoing The Haunting, A Name for Evil also comes off as a sort of modern-day, neurotic version of Bluebeard's Castle: there are some symbolic doors in a man's heart which should be left unopened. In this case it's not clear who does the actual "opening". Both Blake and Joanna seem equally responsible for the catastrophe; he through his retreat into dementia, she by reveling in his inadequacies instead of trying to draw him out into the real world. The house, with its secrets and its reclusive ghost, acts as a metaphor for Blake and his injured psyche.

Unlike The Haunting, which it seems to try so hard to emulate, A Name for Evil fails as a ghost story. The Haunting, both the book and the movie, worked by suggestion. It was equally good as a ghost story and a psychological thriller, especially because it refused to be one or the other. By comparison, A Name for Evil is depressingly mundane. Its ghost, even if he is a figment of Blake's imagination, still looks like an extra in a costume and wig. Its story is more soap opera than haunted house tale. Its conclusion is meant to remind us of the harrowing final image of Wise's movie (which is subtly different from the end of the book); but it only succeeds at being confusing and unsatisfying.

The biggest question I had at the end of the film concerned the title. There is very little evil on display in the film. Pettiness, yes; querulous selfishness, immaturity, mutual abuse... wretched, squalid, but all small stuff, hardly worth being called "evil". Nor, for that matter, is there any message stated clearly enough to be considered a name for anything. Is the film suggesting that the source of evil is self-aabsorption True, one of the most evil people in the world today (and you all know who I'm talking about) is frequently described as a spoiled child, whose lack of understanding of the world around him has led him to the bloody path he now walks; but to compare Blake to a man like that is nonsense. Perhaps the "name for evil" business was made a little clearer in Andrew Lytle's novel, from wwhichthe film was made. I don't know, since the book has proven very difficult to find.

It's not really a bad movie, though. I enjoyed the sinister opening credits, and except for the first post-credits scenes (which are awful), the film looks good. It has an entertaining, "70's movie music" score. The actors are solid, and the story is handled well enough to be engrossing. It provides us with some atypical, deeply flawed characters, and does a reasonably good job of getting us to care about them in spite of their weaknesses. It's certainly worth the price of a rental, provided you're lucky enough to find a copy at your local store. But be prepared: though you may be entertained, you will not be uplifted by it, and you certainly will not be scared.

Except, of course, at the thought of seeing

Robert Culp naked.