The Dystopian Haunt History of Evil Is a Bit of a Political Mess

Movies Reviews Shudder
The Dystopian Haunt History of Evil Is a Bit of a Political Mess

With Alex Garland’s Civil War on the horizon, Bo Mirhosseni’s History of Evil plays like a spooky-flavored appetizer. Mirhosseni sets his neo-fascist dystopia years ahead in 2045 (rather optimistic), reducing the United States to authoritarian rule where neckbeard militias carry out state-sanctioned orders. The Iranian American filmmaker glibly imagines a nation led by fear in the name of protecting “culture,” blended with mediocre haunted house signatures. History of Evil feels sickeningly prescient in 2024’s revving election hellscape, yet underwhelming as an act of protest. Mirhosseni’s feature debut runs on condemnation and rage, infuriated by the bigotry that right-wing extremists have allowed to resurface, but paints in broad exploitation strokes prioritizing conceptual importance over quality execution.

After decades of corruption and a Civil War 2.0, America becomes “The Northern American Federation.” Revolutionary citizens who oppose the tyrannical development form a dissident group known as, wait for it, “The Resistance.” Jackie Cruz stars as Alegre Dyer, a prominent Resistance activist on the run from authorities after releasing a critical anti-Federation text. Alegre, her husband Ron (Paul Wesley), daughter Daria (Murphee Bloom) and Resistance agent Trudy (Rhonda Dents) lay low in a safehouse while waiting for extraction. It’s only supposed to be one night, but Federation blockades delay Resistance mobility. They’re sitting ducks, with armed and proud soldiers closing on their coordinates. Worst of all, Alegre’s safehouse isn’t all that safe. The house wants to see history repeat itself, and it’ll spread its cleansing infection by any means necessary.

The messaging is (moderately) clear: Representations of the “other,” as defined by racist founding fathers, will never be safe in America. Alegre and Trudy are unwelcome guests while Ron is seduced by the plantation-style home’s governing spirit, a despicable hatemonger named Cain (Thomas Francis Murphy), who attempts to win Ron over with slices of All-American apple pie and disgustingly traditional beliefs. Only Ron sees the sunken-eyed, whiskey-sippin’ ghost of Cain at night, as the elder Klansman tries to prove the ease with which racism and xenophobia can be taught. Ron desperately covers for his family when strangers approach, because he’s the only one who can pass for a Federation enthusiast—until we’re asked to wonder whether he’s still playing a character or starting to believe his cover stories.

History of Evil needs to be more than a logline, but struggles with authenticity beyond its anxious warnings. Cruz and Wesley never strike romantic chemistry, which dooms later scenes when Ron lashes out at Alegre with an unloving tone. When Ron and Alegre bicker, it’s more dispassionately awkward than suspenseful. Wesley’s inability to navigate the tension between partners as Ron’s relationship crumbles in turn undersells Ron’s menteeship under Cain, which starts after-hours when a nearly naked Cain approaches the gawking freedom-fighter and is allowed to casually smear unknown black goo on his lips with zero struggle. Mirhosseni values the scene’s visual ickiness over how oddly it flows within the context of the story—a recurring issue.

History of Evil gets even murkier when evaluated on its straightforward horror merits. Its scare tactics never take off, whether that be an asphyxiating wheeze from Daria’s closet or a clanging chain from behind closed doors. Cain’s tar-colored sludge is a forgotten reference, ditching any apparitional weirdness for the good ol’ boy who loves his liquor and firearms. The film’s lean into ghosts as metaphors doesn’t add much to its familiar contemporary satire, and the third-act excitement unleashes bloody retribution almost exclusively off-camera. Mirhosseni never fully reconciles the film’s horror influences with Alegre’s survival thriller blueprint, mushing them together by force like two different colored lumps of Play-Doh.

By all means, art should speak against irrationality. Lines like “Eradication is conservation” should make you shudder. Mirhosseni’s raising awareness for the right cause—in a movie that feels incomplete and distracted. He struggles to clarify things that arguably aren’t the story’s main point, but when characters say “…before I leave,” then are inexplicably shown a few scenes later like that dialogue never occurred, we notice. The same goes for the film’s fantastical elements that go unquestioned, or simply vanish. And why, for instance, is the year 2045 used when the technology never exceeds iPads and Sharper Image drones? History of Evil has something to say about the sad state of our nation–-and where it’s headed should we continue to regurgitate the same racist bile—it just doesn’t justify the means before its end.

Director: Bo Mirhosseni
Writers: Bo Mirhosseni
Starring: Paul Wesley, Jackie Cruz, Zachary Branch
Release Date: February 23, 2024 (Shudder)

Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Critics Choice Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.

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