Occasionally I love a movie so much, I actually want to take the time to write about it and share that love. Today that movie is Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz’ Messiah of Evil (1973) – in my opinion one of the greatest and most unique forgotten horror films of the ‘70’s.
Arletty (Marianna Hill) drives to sleepy coastal town and artist colony Point Dune, California in search of her painter father whose letters have become increasingly disturbing. Finding his house empty, she rifles through his drawings and discovers some freakish diary entries about strange visions he’s been having, ‘pale women with sleepless eyes’ and ‘shadowy figures’ on the beach staring out into the water. In town she meets art-collecting aristocrat Thom (Michael Greer) and his two groupie-like companions Laura (sexy Anitra Ford of Invasion of the Bee Girls) and Toni (Joy Bang – yes, that’s her real name) as they interview the town wino, who rants about a ‘dark stranger’ that appeared 100 years earlier, causing the moon to turn blood red. Since the Dark Stranger’s visit, the people of Point Dune haven’t been the same – they eat raw meat, bleed inexplicably from open sores and build fires on the beach, awaiting this Messiah of Evil’s return to spread his new religion to the rest of the world. Intrigued by the legend of the Blood Moon, Thom and co. stay with Arletty at her father’s house to make sense of what’s going on in the oddly vacant town.
Messiah of Evil (AKA Dead People and Revenge of the Screaming Dead) was the debut feature of husband and wife team Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz who wrote, produced and directed the film while on break from writing American Graffiti for George Lucas. (They would later helm Lucas’ commercial stinkbomb Howard the Duck). And for what would be their only stab at the horror genre, they created a bona fide bizarro classic.
There are so many wonderful, weird impressions that stick in your mind after watching this film: blank-faced townspeople burning fires on the beach and staring out into the sea, a gas-station attendant firing a pistol blindly into the night at some unseen growling thing, a meeting with the deaf-mute owner of an art gallery which would not be out of place in an episode of Twin Peaks, a rat-eating albino who loves Wagner (“Two dollars – no knock.”), the giant ghoulish paintings in the beach house, the sparse eerie electronic score by Phillan Bishop, the constant wind-blowing and wave-crashing in the soundtrack, the goosebump-inducing voice-over narrations by Arletty and her father, the moody apocalyptic tone that hangs like s curtain over the film, the illogical leaps of logic within the narrative, oddly understated acting from most of the cast (particularly Marianna Hill’s mannequin-like performance)… Everything within the world of Messiah is ‘off’ and wisely unexplained, like you’re watching someone’s Lovecraft-inspired nightmare. The film’s somnambulistic pacing and hallucinogenic atmosphere put it in the same dreamlike category as Let’s Scare Jessica to Death and Carnival of Souls. (Years later, John Carpenter and Lucio Fulci would reach similar heights of sleepy small-town desolation in The Fog, The Beyond and City of the Living Dead.)
No review of Messiah of Evil would be complete without mentioning its two classic horror set-pieces. The first features Anitra Ford attempting to exit Point Dune and wandering into a seemingly empty supermarket.The second takes place in a movie theater where Joy Bang becomes the featured attraction. I won’t say anymore – click on the links and see them for yourself for a taste of Messiah’s fever-dream charm.
You either have to be a film’s biggest champion or a complete fool to do a deluxe digital remastering job on a public-domain title that’s been circulating for years on countless bargain-basement video labels. Fortunately for us, Code Red belongs to the former category, rescuing Messiah of Evil (subtitled “The Second Coming” for this release) with an extras-packed DVD putting all of those grey-market releases to shame. Watching this film on one of those dodgy, choppy full-frame VHS copies, you’d think it was a washed-out, cheaply-shot 16mm quickie. Code Red’s stunning HD transfer from 35mm elements in the film’s original 2.35:1 aspect ratio returns the film to its rightful former glory, revealing rich colors, striking art direction, and a tremendous amount of creativity and talent behind the camera. The only thing missing from this new version is the horrible original opening/closing song “Hold on to Love” which was imposed by the distributor and is thankfully absent here (though one might argue that a sappy love ballad with strange lyrics like “Beware of men who became beasts of prey” makes sense in a film already so off-kilter and otherworldly).
So next Easter, instead of watching The Greatest Story Ever Told or The Passion of the Christ on TV, I propose popping in Messiah of Evil. Who knows? You may be waiting for the wrong Messiah, and that pale figure behind you might be a cannibalistic albino instead of the Easter Bunny.
(P.S. Code Red’s DVD of this classic film is unfortunately now out-of-print.)