Face of Evil

(Mary Lambert, USA, 1996)


In Face of Evil, Darcy Palmer (Tracey Golds) is a good-looking, blonde psychopath who can charm any man (it seems) into helping her – including the cop cabdriver in the final scene who is about to let her out of her handcuffs. In the course of the story, she takes on different identities (probably many, it is hinted, before the story begins), and erases the lives of those she devours. Her whole life is a tissue of lies and a closet full of corpses – as we get in Malicious (1996) and many such variations.


Much of Face of Evil has a telemovie blandness of execution, but director Mary Lambert (whose career since early Madonna videos and Siesta in 1987 is intriguing from many angles) has some good gesture/action/visual-business scenes to work with. Such as the prologue, where Darcy tempts a cat to eat a bird she is feeding (much to the moral distress of a nearby little girl!). And especially the elaborate passage where she breaks into the University’s administration offices (an anti-heroine trait: she can get in anywhere – somewhat Hitchockian, à la Marnie [1964]), replaces a woman’s eye-drop liquid with acid, and then waits around the next day outside the building to reassure herself of the success of her plan – “It probably ate straight through to her brain!”, as she chirps to her (again morally horrified) classmates back in the dorm, watching the gruesome news on TV.


Note, by the way, how absolutely bland/pretty and uninteresting the character of Darby’s friend Jeanelle (Shawnee Smith) is, always moping about her somewhat sleazy Dad (Perry King: perfect casting) who has neither time nor affection for her … Smith, by the way, has subsequently shown up in many horror movies of the Saw/Grudge  variety, as well as the TV series Secret Life of the American Teenager (2008-2013). While on the matter of credits, let us also note the trajectory of writer Gregory Goodell, who has directed a bunch of telemovie thillers, as well as the horror movie Human Experiments (1980), and also wrote a guide to independent production.


One of the distinctive and intriguing elements of Face of Evil is the role played by art. At the start, about to marry some hick named Quinn (Don Harvey), Darcy claims to be giving up her interest in painting. He tries to persuade her not to do this. That night, when she clears out, she takes her paintings (including “his” one, a gift to him, cut right out of its frame) with her. At University, inspired by the heavenly vision of art class, she works her wiles to switch her enrolment.


Eventually, Jeanelle’s Dad will help Darby get her first exhibition. And not only is her art the explicit confession in surrealist-expressionist canvases of her actual criminal deeds – like stuffing a dead girl in her suitcase! – it also furnishes her with a kind of Nietzschean life-motto (shades of Rope [1948]): the artist must be free, with no restraining limits. Indeed, whenever Darcy psychotically cracks, it is precisely because someone, in her mind, threatens to curtail her artistic freedom.


One of the most basic structures bequeathed to the modern thriller by Hitchcock and (before him) Patricia Highsmith in Strangers on a Train  (novel 1950, film 1951) is the plot trope of “the fortuitously encountered stranger who enacts your most secret wish”. Face of Evil, adopting the evil gal pal template of Single White Female  (1992) and other contemporary 1990s thrillers, takes this in an odd and highly perverse direction, which is in some sense also a scrambled reworking of the “Mom really did it” displacement-logic of Psycho (1960). In Darcy’s romancing of Jeanelle’s Dad, she does not merely take her BFF’s place as the beloved daughter – she does what the daughter longs to do but cannot: make love to him! And then, just to top it off, Darcy more-or-less throws exactly this wish-come-true in Jeanelle’s face.


This logic also works, on a lesser but more humorous level, with the character of Quinn – whom Darcy rudely jilts, but who then comes after her, until he is trapped in a rolled-up car window and (discreetly) stabbed to death by her. Back at the point of his post-jilt rage, he informs his super-religious parents that he will return to the bar to once again take up boozing – the very bar “where I met Darcy”!


MORE Lambert: Pet Sematary II

© Adrian Martin June 2012

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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