House of Pain: Evil Spirits (1990)

Dave revels in a Karen Black tour de force amid an ensemble to die for in Gary Graver’s fine comedy-horror. 

There’s a remarkable synergy to the creative union of Gary Graver and Fred Olen Ray. Introduced in 1984 by mutual acquaintance George Edwards, the famed producer of a host of Curtis Harrington movies like What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971) and The Killing Kind (1973), they collaborated on nearly fifty films together.

And even when they weren’t working together, they often kind of were.

Take EVIL SPIRITS (1990) for example, which was not only shot within the same four walls as Ray’s similarly titled Spirits (1990), but was also filmed virtually at the same time. Robert Quarry even managed to appear in both – albeit for a one scene cameo in Graver’s picture. “Gary called me and I thought ‘Good, it’ll pay my car insurance this month,’” Quarry remarked at the time [1].

Evil Spirits was the second outing (though first to see the light of day) for Graver’s new production company Grand Am. Formed in 1989 with his long-time producing partner, Sidney Niekerk (who would invariably credit himself under the pseudonym ‘San Norvell’), their aim was to avoid the post-production wrangling that had often dogged Graver movies like Texas Lightning (1981) and Moon in Scorpio (1987).

“I’ve done a number of pictures for a number of different companies, but they’ve always been ruined,” bemoaned a disgruntled Graver to Gorezone in 1990 [2]. “So I formed a partnership with Sidney, and we’re going to do everything in-house”.

Alas, this exciting move to total autonomy only lasted two movies. Whether it’s the fact that Niekerk got hit by a five-count felony indictment by the FBI – which included the transportation of obscene material and conspiracy in regard to Cal Vista, the iconic porn company he was president of – Evil Spirits was to be the last of their brief dalliance under their new guise, as well as Niekerk’s final film credit (Grand Am’s other movie, Roots of Evil, had of course been in the can for a good few months but didn’t hit VHS until 1992 – via Warner Bros., no less).

Evil Spirits was Graver’s concept, but screenwriting duty on Grand Am’s sophmore venture was passed to old hand Mikel Angel, who had previously scripted B-movie bliss like The Candy Tangerine Man (1975) and Psychic Killer (1975). The scribe was certainly in-tune with Graver’s decidedly dark humour: Evil Spirits is laced with Graver’s mischievous sense of fun as the tenants of a Los Angeles guest house begin disappearing, only for the building’s landlady, Ella Purdy (a sublime Karen Black), to keep cashing their social security cheques.

The ten day shoot began on March 12th 1990 and if the film’s story seems familiar, then you’re absolutely right. Graver’s inspiration had been drawn from notorious serial killer Dorothea Puente. In the ‘80s, Puente had ran a boarding house in Sacramento, California, where she gradually murdered in excess of nine of her elderly or mentally disturbed residents while continuing to bank their welfare money. Such was the freshness of the case, Puente still hadn’t been tried when Evil Spirits went into production (the bodies were only discovered in late ’88) – although by the end of ’93 the then sixty-four year-old butcher received life with no parole.

Aside from Black, who Graver had the part specifically written for, it was left to George Edwards to place all the pre-production pieces in place, as the prolific Graver was busy working on a Ray movie (Edwards receives a ‘creative consultant’ credit) . And you have to hand it to him: Edwards assembled an absolute beast of a cast, with Black joined by Michael Berryman, Bert Remsen, Larry Biedes, Martine Beswick, and none other than Virginia Mayo – the iconic Verna Jarrett to James Cagney’s Cody in White Heat (1949). “I was in love with her as a kid, and I was still in love with her when we made Evil Spirits,” said Graver shortly after the shoot [3].

Mayo plays the feisty Janet Wilson, who has a bad feeling about Ella Purdy’s abode from the off, wasting no time in warning husband John (Remsen) of her suspicions. The wrath of this vicious landlady had been made clear in the opening shot. Haunted by the sneering thoughts of the late Mr. Purdy (a frustratingly uncredited voiceover), Ella orchestrates the gruesome dismissal of a beloved tenant, Mr. Stevens (Biedes), which proves to be a regular source of consternation around the breakfast table.

Digging in to the morning buffet is an eclectic mix of people, all at risk from the wrath of the lady of the manor. There’s creepy, egg-loving novelist Mr. Balzac (Berryman, having the time of his life); the gorgeous, séance-giving Vanya (Beswick); and a nubile mute dancer, Tina (Debra Lamb). On the outside though, this homely façade is beginning to crumble thanks to a suspicious neighbour (Yvette Vickers from Attack of the 50ft Woman (1958)) and Lester Potts (comedy icon Arte Johnson, in a role originally conceived for Buck Henry) – a social security care worker who’s determined to find out just where this money is going.

But wait, there’s still room for the aforementioned Quarry, as well as the inimitable Hoke Howell as a bung-taking postie, and a brief cameo from Wasp Woman (1959) star Anthony Eisley, fresh from Ray’s Deep Space (1988).

Treacle dark drollery might be threaded throughout most of the film, but there’s a handful of opportunities for some hastily assembled grue from Scott Coulter. The make-up genius, famous for his work with John Carl Buechler’s MMI, only got the call on the Friday for a gig that started Monday, and although it could be argued that the horror is a little sparse, it’s still a magnificent achievement for Coulter to have prepped and delivered the handful of on-screen kills with such finesse.

As for Graver himself, the tireless filmmaker handles direction, cinematography, and performs all the camerawork too. It’s clear that he could swing round the tight angles of the labyrinthine house location with ease, and he’d get to do it far more often in shows like Haunting Fear (1990) and Witch Academy (1995). It’s a location that also copes with the switches in tone; from atmospheric séances and gorgeously lit rooms against the backdrop of a thunderstorm, to Mr. Balzac’s slapstick peephole leering – Graver changes gear with barely a jolt.

Speaking to Gorezone, Graver remarked how “[Grand Am] went theatrical with Evil Spirits and sold it to Showtime and Laserdisc”[4]. Correct on the second two, but whether the big screen came calling is more difficult to ascertain. Aside from its VHS bow on 3rd October ’91, the only cinema showing that stands out is on a triple bill with Wizards of the Demon Sword (1991) and Teenage Exorcist (1991) at the Ritz Theatre in Hollywood, a year after Evil Spirits hit video.

It deserved to get a good outing in a movie house, because quite simply it is one of Graver’s best; a film that epitomises both his style and playfulness. And to come full circle, it would happen to make an excellent double-bill with Olen Ray’s Spirits – not that actor-writer Mikel Angel would agree. “Wouldn’t you like to see spirits?” his drunkard character is asked with a sly wink.

“No, I’d rather drink ‘em”.


[1] [2] [3] [4] Gorezone, No.17, Spring 1991, interviews with Steve Biodrowski

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