Sunday, June 16, 2024

Netflix’s Little Evil has Very Little Horror but Lots of Laughs

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Being a step-parent has, I’m sure, its share of horrors. Being a step-dad to the Anti-Christ however is an entirely different thing. Little Evil is a 2017 Netflix film brought to you by the mind of Eli Craig that cleverly explores the challenges of becoming a step-dad within the horror-comedy genre.

The Step-parent Trap

Gary Bloom, played by Adam Scott, is newly married and in the process of moving in with his new wife Samantha, played by the ever radiant Evangeline Lilly. Gary’s new little fantasy life also comes complete with a stepson, whom, due to his own lack of a father figure, Gary is having trouble connecting with. There’s something off about Lucas, besides his quiet nature and affinity for digging up worms and dressing like a character out of a Charles Dickens novel. However, Samantha insists that, as with any normal kid living through fast changes, he’s just adjusting to his new life. The film does a good enough job exposing these essential elements right off the bat.

Lucas is about to turn 6 years old and Gary, desperate to connect with his stepson, is trying to spend more time with him in order to reassure Samantha that he is indeed ready for fatherhood and that their hasty marriage was not a mistake. After he drops Lucas off at school, Gary is called back in to deal with an incident. This problem child trope is reminiscent of genre favorites like The Ring or The Babadook among many others.

But, Craig dives into the comedic aspect when we find out that the incident was Lucas telling his teacher to “Go to hell” and, in response, she pours lye all over herself and jumps out the window. Nothing subtle about that. The humor that follows is of course the mild response given by Gary, who doesn’t want to drive a rift between himself, his stepson, and his wife. The latter of whom is farcically quick to blame the teacher’s fragility rather than face the idea that her son might have problems.

This really is Adam Scott’s film though, centered around his character’s struggle to fix the relationship between he, his wife, and his stepson. As much as I am an absolute sucker for the lovely Evangeline Lilly, her character Samantha isn’t really given much dimension at all. She and her son Lucas serve as little more than devices for Gary’s journey. I do enjoy her caricatured obliviousness to her son’s demonic tendencies though. She plays it just close enough to the surface where a shlubby dude like me watched this film and admittedly thought: I know her son is the Anti-Christ, she’s a poor listener, and she’s impossible to reason with…but I totally get why Gary is trying to salvage this. So mission accomplished, I guess?

Who do you play in the film? “I don’t know. They told me to just smile and wear a bunch of cute clothes.” Oh…well that sounds at least watchable.

The “Bros”

A counselor decides that Gary should join a Stepfather therapy group, which Samantha affirms. Clearly Lucas’ behavior stems only from the fact that Gary doesn’t know how to communicate with his stepson. In the group session, however, we come to find out that Gary is not alone with his struggles. Apparently it’s normal to possess feelings of deep psychological fear towards stepchildren because every one of them everywhere is simply a terror. From their kid having an interest in Anna Kendrick comedies (not for the reason a typical father might want his son to have), to shitting in sock drawers, the stepdads all have their own humorous sob story to validate Gary’s concerns with Lucas.

We’re the hilarious kind of ’emotionally clueless’.

The ring of stepfathers is probably the highlight of this film. Their chemistry as a unit and overall comedic presence is worth the watch on it’s own merit. Luckily for us, the disgruntled stepdads become an integral part of the film moving forward. Bridget Everett in particular steals the show with her performance as “Al”. It’s never made clear what gender Bridget’s character identifies as, but Al (for whom I will use the pronouns they/them for lack of a direct confirmation from the canon) does identify as a Stepdad. There is no controversy within the film concerning this fact. The film doesn’t play around with the idea that Al has different challenges than the other dads, misgendering them isn’t the butt of any malicious jokes. The rest of the stepdads just accept Al and it’s kind of amazing.

Script-wise, Everett is just playing a hyper-masculine muscle-car lover who listens to Rush and makes quippy comments. Gender has nothing to do with any of Al’s preferences. They’re considered a Stepdad because they’re is in the Stepdad therapy group, so why wouldn’t the rest consider Al one of their own? It really doesn’t go further than that. It’s brilliant and fun all at the same time without forcing any agenda while also avoiding, to my mind, depicting an offensive stereotype in order to show us how not to stereotype. It’s more than likely going to raise some eyebrows from people that want to make it out into more than it is though.

Meanwhile, more strange things start to occur. The clown at Lucas’ birthday party spontaneously bursts into flames, and the blame is directed towards Gary for not being more careful with his clown selection.

“Thanks for raising the bar. Now all the kids are gonna want a burning clown for their birthday…”

A member of Child Protective Services is soon brought into their home with an amazing cameo that made my heart warm. The CPS agent is there to add more pressure for poor dumb Gary, who finally is forced to face his fears and ummmm…make a connection with his stepson. It’s too late though, by the time Gary faces his fear of intimacy, Lucas, possessed by his goat sock-puppet named Reeroy, has gone full demonic and buries his stepfather in the backyard.

The film stays away from anything too horrific, which is kind of a disappointment, honestly. Though its understandable from the campy tone it set. At just over 90 minutes, I feel they could have expanded Lucas’ powers or at least given us some gratuitous scares and gore. That, to me, is half the fun of these types of films. Instead, everything outside of the outrageous premise is rather small and subtle, so by the time Lucas lets us in on who his real dad is before the final act of the film (Satan), the only real damage done has been to his stepdad’s psyche.

Sure, a demon hunter with dwarfism (Brad Williams) was thrown through a windshield and impaled by a corn husk, but it was no cause of Lucas. The film sets up the fact that “strange global phenomenons are occurring,” due to the fact that, you know, Satan has machinations to return. But other than having a church destroyed in their town and getting an amber alert…civilization is pretty much unaffected by the demonic child.

The creepiest thing is how much this kid looks like his onscreen mother. Seriously.

Gary’s relationship with Samantha falls apart after he dares cuss out Lucas for burying him alive in the yard. Gosh. Men have no control over their emotions! So Gary now finds himself on a rather dark quest with Al to, well, figure out how to murder his possessed step son. He travels to Bethlehem (PA) to obtain a Holy Knife that will end the demon child’s life. There are plenty of hi-jinx to be had here, and lots of silly exposition that ads to this evil stepson allegory.

Upon Gary’s return from Bethlehem, he begs the overprotective Samantha to give him another chance with Lucas. She takes him back and allows Gary to take his stepson out to a water park for his birthday. His plan is to drown him, but he cannot quite go through with it. Lucas loses his puppet Reeroy, which the audience is made to assume was the secret to his possession all along. There wasn’t any plot to clue us in on how or why Reeroy became possessed, it just sort of is. Anyway, with the loss of Reeroy, Lucas seems to have his humanity restored, and this enables a sentimental moment with his stepdad. Though the kid is pretty adorable, the moment feels a bit shallow because Gary and Lucas had no prior relationship. The audience’s only real stake in the matter is to think, “Oh good, he can get back together with Samantha now.”

The final act of the film is perhaps why I felt so disappointed. They went through all this work to lay out these fun plot twists, but then the final act just sort of wraps up in a predictable, safe manor. They have a fun climactic rescue/damsel in distress scene with their band of wacky characters, and the main character arcs are wrapped up well enough, but something just felt a bit hollow.

Look, it’s a campy comedy and clearly a niche genre film, but its climax felt so safe that it bordered on cheap and lazy. I know that every film of this nature may want to avoid entering into full-blown “Scary-Movie spoof territory”, but in doing so it sacrificed any shot of really hitting a home-run with a fun, original conclusion. The sad part is that I think this team really could have nailed a bigger version of the film. It could have had a bigger impact with perhaps a more gritty Sean of the Dead type feel.

Maybe I’m nit-picking. The concept was there, the characters and tones were all right, but it just seemed to fall too heavily on the predictable outcome masked by some (very, very funny mind you) meta-genre jokes. But this is not a bad film. It is charming and clever with plenty of character and solid one-liners. It’s a great one-time-watch if you are planning to throw together a Halloween Movie Night over the weekend, but it won’t soon turn into a cult classic.

Images Courtesy of Netflix

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