One of the key storytelling tools in a filmmaker’s arsenal is tone, and few genres require the precise tonal calibration of the horror-comedy. These are the chocolate and peanut butter of cinema, two fundamentally different genres that can be terrifically complimentary when properly mixed. Another Evil, the debut feature from writer/director Carson D. Mell that screened last week at Fantasia Fest, is an offbeat mixture of exorcism thriller and buddy comedy, and it’s both funny and frightening thanks to a well-balanced tone that’s impressively maintained until the film’s frustrating finale.
Like any good haunted house movie, Another Evil begins with a tight-knit family being terrorized by a supernatural presence in their home. Dan (Steve Zissis), a painter and the family’s patriarch, is proactive about the situation, but the first ghost hunter he hires (played by the smarmy Dan Bakkedahl) ends up encouraging him to just live with his ghostly houseguests. Unsatisfied with this stalemate, Dan brings in Os (Mark Proksch, who recently played a feckless aspiring drug dealer on Better Call Saul), a goofily self-assured exorcist, whose uneasy budding friendship with Dan overlaps with his ghost hunt in unsettling ways.
The bulk of the film is spent with Dan and Os as they alternate between fighting Dan’s ghosts and doing some quality male bonding, and Mell’s surprisingly character-oriented script continues the excellent work he did on shows like Eastbound & Down and Silicon Valley. The film impressively contrasts the successful Dan with the desperate Os, who seems silly and harmless at first before a number of increasingly weird details come to light about him. Mell and Proksch continually hint at something nefarious under Os’ sweaty, friendly surface, and Proksch embodies every aspect of the character with skill, especially in a lengthy origin story monologue that’s ridiculously dark and sneakily hilarious, exemplifying the peculiar tone Mell is trying to achieve.
Steve Zissis doesn’t get as colorful a role as the stable, frightened Dan, but he proves to be a strong and sympathetic straight man. Mell mostly asks Zissis to react to the ghastly horrors in his home and to listen to the demented Os, and Zissis does sturdy, charming work, especially in his uneasy rapport with Proksch. The rest of the small cast is rounded out by Jennifer Irwin, underused but funny as the stereotypical hyper-empathetic LA housewife, and even features a brief cameo by Steve Little, playing a role much more dignified than his work on Eastbound & Down.
The precise tonal alchemy that Another Evil thrives on is disrupted in the third act when the comedy-horror balance tips decisively towards an unexpectedly disturbing flavor of horror. To say much more would spoil some of the film’s memorable narrative flourishes, but Mell’s script builds to this point organically, gracefully paying off on carefully constructed character details. However, the final stretch of the film strays so far away from the question of the haunted house that the film’s driving conflict, and several other questions about the shifting character dynamics, ultimately go unanswered. Mell is certainly grasping at an interesting throughline about what truly constitutes evil, but his message is lost in the rushed finale, which hints at his message without giving itself the breathing room to articulate it fully.
This is a surprisingly emotional, challenging debut from Carson D. Mell, who, despite a prominent reliance on lengthy establishing shots of California hills, proves himself to be an observant writer and director. Mell’s knack for comedic timing shines throughout Another Evil, especially in the lengthy scenes of Dan and Os bonding, and the film even has a handful of genuinely effective scares up its sleeve. Sadly, the dark and abrupt finale holds Another Evil back from greatness, but anyone seeking the singular mix of sweet buddy comedy, gross exorcism movie, and bleak psychological thriller will find plenty to enjoy in Another Evil.