The 13th Floor

The Nightmarish History of “Lost” Underground Film WHERE EVIL DWELLS

[WARNING: Disturbing content ahead]

In one of our true-crime features, we detailed the gruesome case of teenage murderer Ricky Kasso — a violent sociopathic drug dealer whose brutal, sadistic crime was swept up in the tide of ‘80s “Satanic Panic,” including mostly baseless rumors that Kasso was part of a secret occult society that conducted ritual human sacrifices.

In reality, Kasso’s motivations had little to do with Satan; the killer and his accomplices were later found to be under the influence of powerful hallucinogens (often nicknamed “The Acid King,” Kasso sold LSD, mescaline and PCP) when they murdered fellow teen George Lauwers… and Kasso’s actions were mostly fueled by intense rage, as he believed Lauwers stole drugs and/or money from him.

But the facts of the case didn’t stop filmmakers Tommy Turner and David Wojnarowicz from exploring the insane urban legends which mostly obscured it, making this theme the basis for their experimental film WHERE EVIL DWELLS.

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Shot on grainy black & white 8mm stock in 1985 — just months after the crime itself made the news — the project seems to dramatize abstract, violent fantasies emerging from Kasso’s drug-addled mind during and after the crime (Kasso committed suicide shortly after being arrested), as well as the killer’s well-documented pride in this brutal act, and his subsequent macabre obsession with Lauwers’ mutilated corpse (which he reportedly displayed for his friends).

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According to Wojnarowicz, there was once enough footage for a feature film — until the only existing print was destroyed in a fire at Turner’s apartment; he claims a collection of scenes, transferred from 8mm film to video, is all that remains of the original. This material was then edited into a 28-minute promotional reel, which premiered at the Downtown New York Film Festival in 1985. The longer version may be an urban legend in itself, however, since there is little evidence to support its existence apart from Wojnarowicz’s statement.

Nevertheless, even in this (allegedly) truncated form, WHERE EVIL DWELLS achieved some notoriety within the New York underground film scene, popping up in additional screenings throughout the ‘80s. This may be partly due to some of the names associated with the elusive production — including “No Wave” cinema pioneer Richard Kern (who may have supplied the filmmakers with the 8mm camera), indie actor Rockets Redglare and artist Joe Coleman, best known for his surreal portraits of serial killers. Coleman appears several times in the film, portraying a well-dressed, cigar-puffing occultist overseeing Satanic ceremonies.

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With no coherent narrative, the film is essentially a series of nightmare vignettes, framed by segments featuring a foul-mouthed, homicidal ventriloquist dummy — sometimes operated by a mutilated, blood-drooling man with a dangling eyeball (possibly representing George Lauwers, whose eyes Kasso removed during or after the murder), while other times interacting with the amused Kasso (played by Scott Werner) before gleefully stabbing him in the heart.

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The ritual scenes feature stylized rape, torture and murder, half-naked people cavorting in masks and fetish wear (one character looks like a kinky Jason Voorhees with Freddy Krueger claws!), against dreary scenes of a bespectacled Jesus messily binge-eating in a restaurant, as well as sequences of grave-robbing, vandalism and practical jokes played with a crude corpse dummy — presumably representing Kasso’s real-life victim, whose body was put on display for his circle of drug-addled neighbor kids.

This surreal landscape is accompanied by sparse narration, badly-synched dialogue (the original was shot without sound), horrifying drones, old-time religious broadcasts and needle-drop music tracks ranging from AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells” to experimental noise band Wiseblood (founded by JG Thirlwell of Foetus).

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But what the hell is all this about, you ask? Well… according to Wojnarowicz, WHERE EVIL DWELLS “takes us through the A to Z of cultural imaginary [sic] and confronts it with the present… mythological-Christian and media-based narratives, high and popular culture interfuse.”

He goes on to explain how he and Turner invert and satirize “Satanic Panic” culture, which itself obscured the true story of a deeply disturbed young man and his cult-like influence on a band of drug-addled slackers. The result “counteracts the stringent narrative of the nice suburban kid, who winds up with the wrong group of friends and, on being exposed to music that glorifies violence, cannot help but turn into a killer, with referential, visual and acoustic overkill.”

If you’re up to the challenge, you can currently stream the entire film on public-domain site UBU.