A visionary moviemaker free from the diktats of a studio, perhaps even from the need to recoup a budget: that’s rather the dream isn’t it? Especially in this age of algorithmic movie-making, of brand ‘universes’ and moral kowtowing to the whims of a genocidal Chinese state council. But the logistics of movie making almost never permit such freedom.
Not so Andrew Getty, at least not really. If his last name is familiar that’s because Andrew’s grandfather was John Paul Getty, oil tycoon and once-richest man in America. Andrew Getty was born never having to worry about money and, by the time of his death from meta-amphetamine-related causes at the age of forty-seven, blew all that good fortune and security on creating one single movie. In all, he spent six years filming the thing and fifteen years making it.
The Evil Within, released in 2017 but started in 2002, is a unique beast. At turns baroquely amateurish and feverishly brilliant, the Youtuber In Praise Of Shadows captures most viewers reaction to Within when he says: ‘This isn’t a very good movie but its one I’ll remember the rest of my life.’
The Evil Within is a horror film–one currently floating among a sea of mediocre-yet-capably-made horror movies on Amazon Prime, its cover offering little clue as to its unique nature–about a young man with learning difficulties lured into serial murder by a demon that stalks his nightmares.
Well, sort of. The serial killings are some of the least interesting bits and possess no cohesive tone. In fact nothing outside of the protagonist’s nightmares has a cohesive tone. The nightmares are original and rich with disorienting charm, each based on dreams Andrew Getty actually had. Andrew Getty had issues, doubtless. But he had the bucks and the obsessiveness to weave captivating metaphors from those issues.
If you do nothing else, dear reader, just watch the first fifteen minutes of The Evil Within. The fair rides sat in the middle of a salt flat? Getty paid for the entire fair to set up there. The constant transformation of objects and people in the opening narration? All him. Getty, a novice to special effects, would buy expensive equipment on a whim. He created all the special effects in the movie, sometimes haphazardly but always with energy and vision. The scenes involving people staring into mirrors, that pastime of the amphetamine addict, never fail to startle.
Which maybe shouldn’t surprise us: he would smoke something like 3.5 grams of meth a day and seal himself away in a wing of his mansion, endlessly polishing each scene of a film he’d never live to see. A lifestyle that went on for years, that received police visits at least thirty-one times and would even lead Getty to seek a restraint order on his long time girlfriend. It was she who found him naked and dead upon a bathroom floor, surrounded by a horde of glass pipes.
We envy the children of billionaires, loathe them even. But, much like Britain’s royal family, they’re a kind of half-people more worthy of our pity than our scorn. I don’t mean they’re subhuman; no one is. I mean the winds of daily life, those commonalities most of us share that shape and strengthen us, never buffet the super-rich kid’s life. Rather, the wealth of their immediate ancestors acts like a black hole, warping the gravity of their lives and tearing away any hope of a normal atmosphere. Thus, when scions create art they can tell us almost nothing of our own lives. But they can offer a peephole into their own wealth-soaked crisis. Arguably, it’s here The Evil Within excels.
That Dennis, the film’s protagonist, is a child-like man with learning difficulties is cringe-riddled in concept, writing and execution. But as a metaphor for the invisible wall between a super-rich scion and the normal world it’s very illuminating. Dennis has to be looked after, he has to have everyday things explained to him. He reaches conclusions via circuitous mental routes that no one else would ever conceive.
And it’s a good thing this metaphor is front and centre because Getty’s attempts at mimicking what the rest of us call real life often falls far short. Dennis and his brother John are written as coming from an American middle-class background and Dennis has to be cared for, yet Dennis can somehow acquire anything out of nowhere, including the materials and tools for building a small theatre. Meanwhile John’s therapist offers to give John free hour-long consultations every single day for a month simply because he cares. Strangest of all, the brothers’ house (in truth a wing of Andrew Getty’s mansion) has a skeleton of an extinct large bird in the entrance hall (I’m not entirely sure what species), the sort of objet d’art only owned by generations of the obscenely rich.
Actor Frederick Koehler, who plays Dennis (and was one of only two actors who stuck around for the entire six year filming), has gone on record as saying it soon became apparent Dennis was Getty and that Getty’s issues were the inspiration for the movies dark imagery.
Getty grew up in a cold family, its patriarch often banishing relatives for life and who, infamously, once refused to pay kidnap money for a grandchild, arguing he had thirteen other grandchildren (When an ear arrived in the post, JP Getty haggled the price down substantially, a third of it a loan to his son to be paid back with interest). With that in mind it’s all too easy to see the darkness in Dennis’ flesh and bone as a metaphor for inherited malice.
I’d recommend this movie. The dialogue screams for a polish, the acting is variable, the plot’s so eccentric it sometimes borders on incoherence and whole scenes could be removed with no detrimental effect but, rising above all that, is a uniqueness, a singular and fevered vision that lingers in your mind for days. Horror should never be predictable and Andrew Getty, struggling in some half-empty mansion with a nightmare world for more than a decade, certainly avoided that. It’s just tragedy he never made it to the light.