During the early 1980s, primitive home computers were presented as having almost limitless capacities. You remember the ones: green text on a black screen with the kind of graphics that made Ceefax seem positively futuristic. Whether it was kids embroiled in high-tech nuclear war (War Games) or adolescents of a hornier persuasion manufacturing beautiful women in their bedrooms (Weird Science), computers were God-like in their powers. With only a modicum of tech skills, average schmoes the world over were capable of redefining the laws of physics.
Not content with mortal acts of cod-modernity, the writers of controversial tech-horror Evilspeak went just that little bit further. Not only were these technological relics capable of giving birth to ludicrously hot, fully-developed women, they were designed to accommodate satanic black magic, acting as a conduit for malevolent spirits looking for bloodthirsty vengeance centuries in the making. If computers were strange and alien to Reagan-era parents tasked with returning to American family values, just think what movies such as this must have done for their reputation. The future of technological advancement may have been bright, but in the movies computers were little more than a convenient plot device made infallible by a generation who understood very little about them.
Banned as one of the 72 ‘Video Nasties’ following the Obscene Publications Act of 1984, Evilspeak stars cult horror figure Clint Howard in an early big screen role, and he is central to the film’s peculiar appeal. Though only 21 at the time, Howard was already something of a veteran having spent the majority of his formative years as a star of the small screen (he even voiced the infant elephant in Disney’s 1967 adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book), though he was still something of a greenhorn as an adult lead. Not that it mattered. Aesthetically, Howard is the kind of misshapen cookie who is essential to a movie that sees a shy kid transformed into a harbinger of otherworldly evil. He just has that aura about him.
Howard has made an impressive career off his peculiar visage, his goofy mannerisms and distinct features seemingly made for the horror genre. One look at him is enough to send shivers up anyone’s spine given the right context. In fact, the actor spoke of a real-life incident that occurred during the making of Evilspeak that may or may not surprise you. Having left the set still in his bloodied costume, Howard pulled up at some traffic lights and, unaware of his appearance, casually smiled at a woman who had begun staring at him, leading her to desperately lock every door of her car and wait impatiently for the lights to change. Imagine a blood-spattered Clint Howard smiling at you on a desolate road in the dead of night. Can you blame her for having such a reaction?
Here, Howard plays bumbling military school student Stanley Coopersmith, an orphan pushed into the arms of Satan thanks to a group of unlikely bullies beset on the usual gang-led torture. More dubious are a group of teachers who promote that bullying for the good of the school soccer team, which has a rule that all players must take part in two of every four quarters, even though a soccer match actually consists of only two halves. To be fair, those responsible probably needed the back-up. When it comes to American High School movies — which is what this begins as — our protagonist’s tormentors have to be right up there with the biggest pussies ever cast in the role of bullies. Not one of them looks like they could fight their way out of a wet paper bag, though the ringleader’s penchant for sacrificing sweet little puppies is perhaps something to worry about. The things we do when we’re loaded!
While cleaning the parish cellar, Coopersmith, creatively dubbed Cooperdick, stumbles upon the resting place of a centuries-old satanic worshipper named Esteban. This is a seemingly endless space of Gothic masonry no one else on campus seems to be aware of, despite the fact that the quarters of the drunken janitor are right next door. When a sultry secretary steals Cooperdick’s – sorry, Coopersmith’s – book of black magic after being drawn to its alluring emblem, the oppressed youngster uses the school’s shiny Apple II computer to decipher the rest of the puzzle, and when his innocent pup is ruthlessly slaughtered, our goofy-looking lead is pushed a step too far, unleashing a long-dormant evil that gives him the power to enact vengeance on his lousy aggressors and then some.
At the time, the primitive special effects on show were probably enough to pacify audiences, and though Coopersmith is too bumbling a character to truly invest in, Evilspeak is a relatively ambitious horror outing that proves more interesting than the majority of derivative productions flooding the pre-certificate home video market. It has the same old bullied kid set-up, but all kinds of crazy transpires as we near the movie’s infamous final act, not least sexpot Lynn Hancock’s death-by-wild boar, one of the scenes that had the film banished to commercial purgatory as moral panic ran roughshod over the industry. An extended cut of the scene, one that was purportedly even more graphic, didn’t make the final uncut version released years later, Howard and Weston believing that the footage is likely lost forever. It’s such a shame when that happens.
Even so, you’d have to be pretty timid to be disturbed by a movie of Evilspeak’s cornball presentation, and compared with some of the dead-eyed, cynical slashers banned along with it, this is about as realistic as a Mexican daytime melodrama entering its long-overdue final episode, and the only real window for offence when it comes to horror is realism, which this movie is absolutely bereft of. Of course, these were different times, and the film is fairly graphic when it finally decides to up the tempo, brutal decapitations and still-beating heart extractions just a sample of the bloody delights on display, but ultimately the movie would offend for altogether different reasons.
That reason is religion. Until Evilspeak‘s rather shocking climax, you’re kind of wondering what all the fuss is about save for the movie’s abrupt opening kill. For the most part it felt like a second-rate TV drama that could just as easily have been heading towards a mawkish, apple pie resolution, but boy was I off the mark! It would be almost a quarter of a century before Evilspeak was deemed worthy of public consumption, thanks to the kind of blasphemous finale that would have had Weston burnt at the stake in some quarters, with text images of the Black Mass and a series of sacrilegious practical effects that incorporate satanic rituals, religious iconography and a startling church-bound massacre instigated by an image of God himself. What on Earth were they smoking?
Still, if you’re a low-budget filmmaker looking to get noticed, nothing ruffles the feathers like a little blasphemy, and in those terms Weston procured the Holy Grail of censorship infamy.