Chilling, gory and incredibly tense, When Evil Lurks is likely 2023’s best horror

A case of demonic possession gets out of control in chilling and gory horror When Evil Lurks. There’s a lot of pleasure to being held in the grip of this masterful horror, says Steve Newall, even if it spares no one from its brutality.

Is October too early to be declaring “horror movie of the year”? I’d be delighted if it is, as that would mean there’s an even better genre entry out there than the superb When Evil Lurks. But after having two thrilling viewings of Demián Rugna’s chilling, gory and incredibly tense tale of demonic possession, the odds are stacked against a stronger horror presenting itself in 2023. The Argentine director, who impressed with his previous feature Terrified, cited The Road, The Wailing and Evil Dead as influences to Bloody Disgusting, in an interview where he also noted “I’m trying to create my own universe all the time”. As it turns out, it’s a perfectly horrific one to spend time in, infused with dread, unpredictability, and grotesque practical effects.

When Evil Lurks is set in a world where it’s accepted that demons attempt to possess the living (although it happens rarely), and procedures are in place to contain an outbreak. Rugna sprinkles this information, as well as his film’s mythology relating to how the contagion spreads from person to person (or animal to animal), and the ‘rules’ for reducing risk, throughout. This is not an exposition-heavy film where an apparition sends people looking for the experts, but one in which a botched exorcism has set the wheels in chaotic motion and we’re challenged to keep up with Rugna’s propulsive narrative.

It kicks into gear in rural Argentina when brothers Pedro and Jaime investigate the woods near their farmhouse after hearing gunshots. What they find is a corpse shorn in half with its guts spilling out, When Evil Lurks serving up the first of its many brutal victims early on—a discovery that leads them to a nearby residence housing a possession victim, known as a “rotten”. Part Baron Harkonnen, part Jabba the Hutt as imagined by gross-out-era Peter Jackson, this rotten is a bloated, goo-drooling, pustule-covered fellow who’s been waiting a year for authorities to take necessary measures. The lackadaisical attitude of municipal police and bureaucrats has left him to rot with a demon inside him, lending this pic some real-world concerns. “Kill me,” he begs—if only it were that simple.

Rugna’s rotten are demons waiting to be born, and part of that process is goading the living into killing those who are possessed. There’s a right way to go about “cleaning” the rotten, and even merely interacting with them. Unfortunately, these rules go unheeded when local landowner Ruiz convinces the brothers of the risks to their town and livelihood should an outbreak be reported. Not for the last time, When Evil Lurks takes pleasure in the grim humour of revolting practical effects as they take matters into their own hands…

A growing sense of dread and panic infest the film, When Evil Lurks’ storytelling continually surprising as it also serves up shocking, sometimes gasp-inducing, scenes of violence. It’s reinforced throughout that religion offers no hope—“God is dead, and the times of churches ended quickly” we’re told at one point—and Rugna establishes a constant sense of edge-of-the-seat tension that’s seldom seen in supernatural horror. That’s not to say this isn’t also a hell of a lot of fun. There’s a lot of pleasure to being held in the grip of this masterful horror, even if it spares no one—even (especially?) children—from its brutality. This really isn’t one for the squeamish…

“I guess to make a script in which you don’t know what is going to happen in two minutes with this character, in two minutes with this element, gives me the chance to kick you at any time,” was how Rugna described his approach in that aforementioned Bloody Disgusting interview. Reflecting on the multiple levels that When Evil Lurks impacts the viewer, accentuated by this unpredictability, it’s safe to say he lands every kick, and then some. Rugna’s filmmaking evil is welcome to lurk any time.