Following the success of his paranormal thriller Terrified, Argentinian director Demián Rugna returns with the highly-anticipated demon possession film When Evil Lurks. Rugna shocked audiences in 2017 with a horror film that focused heavily on harmonizing classicly effective horror techniques: building excellent suspense and visualizing terrifying effigies that were inhuman enough to cause significant discomfort in the viewer. Though cast within the frame of an otherwise unremarkable ghost story, the director’s talent for creating genuine scares coupled with chilling lighting and sound design made for a frighteningly good time. Six years later, Rugna’s When Evil Lurks utilizes many of those same horror techniques but also showcases a filmmaker who has matured in many ways, employing equal parts restraint and sheer cruelty to craft what many are calling—and what may very well be—the meanest horror movie of 2023.
Like his breakout hit, Rugna’s latest endeavor follows a supernatural presence plaguing an Argentinian town, but When Evil Lurks sees the diabolical force threaten humanity at a larger scale than a few houses on an improbably unlucky street. Instead, an entire village is at risk of being consumed by this unexplainable evil when two brothers discover a so-called “Rotten” at a nearby residence. Seemingly the result of a demonic infection that desecrated the body of a woman’s son, Uriel, his death will cause the coming of a genuine demon spawn, and it falls to Pedro (Ezequiel Rodríguez) and Jaime (Demián Salomón) to resolve the situation when nobody else decides to believe them. Already, this concept of a demonic “virus” begs many questions but is wholly unique within the supernatural horror subgenre, and Rugna strengthens it with other world-building elements like a set of rules used to ward off the infestation and fight it should it possess some poor soul.
Admittedly, these “rules” are an intriguing addition to this already unusual premise, and sometimes they work to clarify some characters’ behaviors. However, the rules can also be inconsistent, particularly as the plot progresses, leaving the audience with logical questions. That said, setting this story in an otherwise ordinary world post-demonic manifestation is a bold conceptual move, but it works because Rugna’s demons look like everyday human beings. Their skin does not crack and change, nor do their eyes glow red, but the people they begin to possess merely become “other” and seek nothing but manipulation and death as a means to an end. This lack of visual transformation sufficiently generates a troubling atmosphere filled with paranoia and dread, as both the audience and the protagonists never quite know who is infected and who is not. Point in fact, one of the best—and most shockingly gruesome—moments of the film occurs because of this precise uncertainty early on.
Speaking of being gruesome, When Evil Lurks is uncharacteristically brutal and unforgiving in a world of horror films that some argue do not go far enough in their efforts to scare, shock, or disgust. In Rugna’s feature, nobody is safe—man, woman, child, or animal—and what occurs to most victims is nothing short of malicious. Rodríguez, Salomón, and the rest of the principal cast put their best duplicitous feet forward as both concerned civilians and demon-infested hosts, and Rodríguez especially carries the film as the broken father carrying the heavy burden of guilt for improperly handling the “Rotten” that causes the virus’s spread. He excels when the plot slows down, highlighting Rugna’s restraint, as mentioned earlier, and characters debate their mortality, morality, and the world’s newfound absence of faith.
When Evil Lurks is a hostile attack on everything we know to be good in the world, and the film is all the better for it, already pleasing hardcore horror fans who are looking for something unsafe. Though the world-building falters at times due to some inconsistent traits and deserted characters and settings, and the film ends up much smaller in scope than it promises to become, there is still plenty to appreciate with When Evil Lurks. The movie is a rather vicious and unrelenting examination of what happens when humanity selfishly disregards the evils that fester underneath the surface of our society and puts too much stock into our naive sense of security.