Parenthood can be a nightmare, and horror movies frequently play on that trope. There’s an entire subgenre of creepy-child films, from The Bad Seed to The Omen to The Babadook, and they all tap into the creeping anxiety that comes with having children. Netflix’s Little Evil is the latest to join the ranks. On paper, it’s fairly rote — as disturbing supernatural phenomena pile up, Gary (Adam Scott) begins to suspect his new stepson Lucas (Owen Atlas) may be the Antichrist. Luckily, writer-director Eli Craig has a few tricks planned to break up the usual pattern.
Like Craig’s last feature, the genre treat Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, Little Evil is a satire rather than a straightforward horror film. In telling the story of a man essentially struggling with the Devil for custody, it hits every predictable trope: disconcerting string music, creaking floorboards, a cult led by Clancy Brown, a creepy-cornfield sequence, even a psychiatrist named “Dr. Farrow,” in an obvious nod to Rosemary’s Baby. Then Craig lampoons them all. Gary’s first clue that something is wrong comes from his wedding videographer (Tyler Labine), who tells him that the officiating priest wasn’t speaking in Latin, but in tongues. Played backward, the footage reveals that the priest was binding Gary to protect the child at all costs. It’s creepy, yes, but it’s also essentially what he’s signing up for in the first place: as Lucas’ new father, it’s his job to take care of the boy. And the movie’s dream team of characters brought together by their struggle against the same kind of evil is a stepdad support group. Near the beginning of the film, when Gary tries to describe Lucas and trails off, one of the other stepdads (Donald Faison) helpfully supplies, “He’s evil incarnate?” He doesn’t know how right he is.
Craig mostly manages to avoid coming across as too pleased with his own cleverness. A lot of the responsibility for the film’s success rests on Adam Scott, who proved his dramatic chops earlier in 2017 with Big Little Lies. Here, he manages to nail the turn from disbelief to contemplating filicide without making it too overtly goofy, which is imperative, given that Lucas and his mother Samantha (Evangeline Lilly) function more as props for the story than full characters. That said, genre parodies like this don’t work unless at least one of the characters is fully committed to the horror side of the horror/comedy ratio, and as the little evil himself, Atlas embodies every Damien-shaped fear filmgoers have ever had without making it seem like too much of a stretch when he turns on his puppy eyes. Lilly also does good work as the movie’s requisite straight man. When Lucas tells a teacher “Go to hell,” and she pours lye on herself and leaps from the window, Samantha steadfastly considers that a sign of the teacher’s fragility, not anything supernatural about Lucas.
At the other end of the spectrum is Bridget Everett as Al, Gary’s work friend and fellow member of the stepdad club. Where Samantha provides domestic horror, Al provides domestic comedy. She’s going through the same (relative) trials as Gary as she tries to get along with her stepson. It’s just that her Antichrist is a little less literal.
Horror-comedies don’t work unless at least one character believes in the comedy, and one in the horror
Everett’s role is one of the freshest things about the movie. Gary expresses a little surprise at Al calling herself a stepfather at the beginning of Little Evil, but Craig’s script forgoes any of the other gendered jokes that seem to be predominant in comedy films. In fact, it generally forgoes gendering Al at all. It doesn’t do anything to set her apart from the rest of the stepdads club — she wears the same khakis and fleece vests that they do, and has the same normal, domestic life with her wife. These sorts of little beats are key to setting Little Evil apart from the horror-comedy crowd. The story isn’t new, but that’s hardly objectionable when it’s told in a fresh way.
But pulling off horror-comedy well is always a remarkable feat, since the genre is a hybrid of two fundamentally opposite tones. The Evil Dead franchise is the paragon that jumped the chasm by leaning so fully into parody that it came full circle. (And the current TV series is surprisingly emotionally front-loaded without sacrificing any silliness.) Shaun of the Dead managed a similar trick, subverting zombie movie tropes with suburban hallmarks without losing sense of why zombies are scary in the first place. Little Evil pays a little tribute to that film with the kind of snappy montage that’s become a hallmark of Edgar Wright movies.
Little Evil has a little Wright-style cleverness: the movie’s big chase sequence is between Gary and a demon, but the demon isn’t some horrific monster — it’s Lucas’ beloved goat puppet, Reeroy. And when Gary has to find hallowed ground, his first thought isn’t a church — it’s a nearby water park that was supposedly blessed by the Pope. Unfortunately, unlike its predecessors, Little Evil doesn’t fully stick the landing. The humor doesn’t lean as far into camp as Evil Dead, nor are the scares as potent as in Shaun of the Dead. And the plot-motivator scenes, the ones that are just there to move the story along, are forgettable at best.
The biggest victim of these predictable story beats is the film’s conclusion, where Craig fails to completely mix horror and comedy. He ends up with two endings that devolve into platitudes like, “Things are about to get interesting!”, and they undercut the film’s fresher material. There’s also a sight gag that comes off as regressive — Gary recruits the help of a supernatural specialist played by Brad Williams, an actor with dwarfism, and one sequence rests entirely on his difficulty loading a truck, due to his height. At least the movie doesn’t linger on it long. Some of the other jokes are a little too drawn-out, as if Craig were intent on making sure the audience knows it isn’t taking itself too seriously. That insistence would be more annoying if the comedians handling it weren’t so skilled.
Still, there’s plenty to like about Little Evil, including a cameo that’s too surprising not to mention, but too good to spoil. Scott and Everett are terrific in handling material that demands seriousness and silliness by turns, and the movie does enough well that its flaws are tolerable, if not necessarily overlookable. It’s a charming way of ringing in the Halloween season.