Friday, October 5, 2012

What's in a Name: "A Name for Evil" (1973)

"A Name for Evil" is probably one of the strangest films I have ever seen. Strange does not necessarily equal good, but I doubt I will ever see anything else like it.

Successful architect John Blake (Robert Culp) decides to quit the rat race and take his cold wife Joanna (Samantha Eggar) back to nature. He wants to rebuild his great-grandfather's (the Major's) old decrepit house. John also has a very rich fantasy life. His thoughts are full of topless belly dancers, and Joanna being the loving mate he once knew.

The couple bicker and argue out to the house, and find it in a worse state than they expected. The tenant died a year before, and some rooms have not been opened since the Major lived there last. Another problem, the Major is still roaming around the old homestead. The spirits of him and his horse keep claiming the house as his, and insist his descendant leave. After a fifty year old sealed room is opened, Joanna has a change of heart, rubbing the room's molding seductively, and even having her hands kissed by a shadowy figure who is neither John or the local carpenters hired to bring the house back.

Joanna accuses John of never sticking to anything, and the two discuss divorce. Joanna finds a tunnel in the basement, and John keeps hearing Joanna laugh in the house, something she denies doing. Eventually, John finally captures the white horse he has seen on the property, and rides it to a combination bar/church setting, where the local hippies hang out. John falls for cute blond Luanna (Sheila Sullivan), and the two make love after the crowd sheds their clothing in an orgiastic dance scene.

John goes home, and hears from Joanna about how rough he was in bed the night before, even though he was not there. John's fantasy life and real life begin to blur together, and a surprising ending finds the death of a major character played against the image of John throwing his television out of the window from the opening minutes of the film.

The plot seems weak because the film is only seventy four minutes long, and plays with imagery more than propelling the events forward. The house picked for the film looks abandoned, and Girard's shots of shadowy figures wandering in the wreckage is terrifying. It always happens out of the corner of Culp's, and the viewer's eye, and is very effective. The problem is the director/screenwriter makes no mystery of who is haunting the house, and some suspense is lost.

The film starts out as a good old fashioned creaky house thriller, but then gets sidetracked by a sexual subplot that does not involve the afterlife. Culp certainly takes on a revealing role, and acts appropriately puzzled when need be, but I did not know where Girard planned to go. He has a great sex scene between Culp and Sullivan shot through clear water, the nudity is plentiful, but I kept thinking he should get back to the scary stuff and leave the softcore to other films. Eggar is good as the real wife and the fantasy wife, but I think she seemed a little lost in the conclusion.

What of that tunnel? Who killed the deer found in the house? Why does the Major's ghost insist John leave, then fall in love with Joanna, then insist Joanna should die? How did the tenant die? What secrets were contained in the room sealed for five decades? None of these questions are answered, merely touched upon. The hippie subplot is also dated, the orgy-like scene is entertaining in a quaint, non-implant way.

"A Name for Evil" is not great, nor good, but something that I would watch again just to figure out what the hell is happening. Culp is one of my favorite unused actors, and this role is one few other actors would dare take. (* * *) out of five stars.