Messiah of Evil (1973) falls into that category of films that do so many things well that they should be unheralded classics. However, somewhere in its conception, the production team manages to fumble the ball at the proverbial goal line. Directed by Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, the film borrows several stylistic details from Italian cinema and combines it with some good old American supernatural walking dead to produce a visually exhilarating and stylistically compelling film.
Point Dume and the Blood Red Moon
Messiah of Evil reaches out and grabs the audience with its opening salvo. A man runs from something in the dark. Clearly, the man fears for his life. Just as he seems to have run out of options, a young woman opens the gate to her back yard and offers to let the man in. As the man catches his breath and regains his wits, the young girls approaches. In the blink of an eye she pulls out a straight razor and slices the mans throat from ear to ear. Cue the opening credits. Alright, I am hooked. Let’s go.
A woman named Arletty (Marianna Hill) serves as the main protagonist. She explains that she normally communicates with her father who is an artist in the remote coastal town of Point Dume, California. However, over time his communications seemed to become more erratic and nonsensical. He speaks of an incredible darkness enveloping the town. Correspondence becomes irregular at first an then stops altogether. Against her father’s advice, Arletty heads to Point Dume to find out what is going on.
They’ll take you one by and no one will hear you scream… No one will hear you scream
Once in Point Dume, she finds that her father’s home looks lived in, but there are no signs of him. Quickly, she begins to notices strange things and stranger people in the town. She eventually befriends an outsider named Thom (Michael Greer) and his traveling girlfriends, Toni (Joy Bang) and Laura (Anitra Ford). As the only sane people in town, Thom and Arletta confront the evils of Point Dume together. Thom and Arletta uncover a secret plot to usher in the Dark Messiah as he invokes an unholy campaign to spread his evil across the world.
Style, Mystery and Atmosphere
Immediately, Messiah of Evil shows its strongest attributes. Placing the film in an artist colony brilliantly allows the production to emphasize certain stylistic elements. Arletta’s father’s house looks like a modern museum of pop art. Every room brings a measure of 1970’s counter-culture and sensibility to the film. It also pulls a foreboding cloud over the the film as black and white human caricatures stare from the walls in the darkness.
Adding to the 1970’s vibe, Thom, a master cocksman, flaunts his open relationship with Toni and Laura and shows no hesitation propositioning Areltta as a swinging third. Newly expanded and socially acceptable gender roles have entered the chat.
The stunning artistic backdrop hints at Italian horror cinema influence. Up until this point, directors such as Argento set The Bird With Crystal Plumage (1970) against a backdrop of artistic endeavor. Lucio Fulci’s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) would use similar imagery as his protagonist gets swallowed in the world of social excess and high-fashion. Furthermore, the stunningly beautiful leads offer familiar allusions to Italian cinema’s overt sexuality. Finally, Phillian Bishop’s synthesized score creates brooding euro-atmospherics and suspense building.
The European parallels seem too pronounced and profound to be accidental.
Shades of Romero
The production team also pulls inspiration from American cinema as well. By this time, George A. Romero well established the undead genre of films with his breakout 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead (1968). He would follow up this classic with his statement on crass commercialism, Dawn of the Dead (1978). Interestingly enough, Katz and Huyck may have beaten him to the punch.
In one of the more memorable scenes in the film, Laura decides to leave Thom and Toni behind in order to start up a new life. As she tries to make her way out of town, she enters a Ralph’s grocery store. In this store, the ghouls walk about aimlessly, much like Romero would portray in Dawn of the Dead. As she turns the corner, she finds a mob of the undead feasting on a cooler full of raw meat. Considering the scene, Laura plays it really cool until they quickly they turn to her for fresh flesh.
The producers similarity in visuals is striking between Night of the Living Dead and Messiah of Evil, especially in the way that the ghouls swarm Laura’s body like a pack of ravenous dogs.
Kino der Toten
Ok, there’s more than one standout scene in Messiah of Evil. Thom clearly wants to make time with Arletta, so he need to put some space between himself and Toni. He suggests that she goes to catch a movie. In bright lights, the marquee exclaims “Kiss tomorrow Goodbye”. Toni enters the theater and finds a seat towards the front. In a painstakingly slow and methodical burn, the ghouls slowly filter into the theater, filling the seats behind her. They sit silently as the movie plays on. Eventually they fill the empty seats, closing in on her.
By the time she notices, her fate is sealed. They bring her down as she tries to escape, feasting on her flesh.
Failure to Close
Unfortunately, for all it does well, Messiah of Evil struggles to generate a big payout for all the intrigue and mystery that it generates in the early stages. Katz and Huyck struggle to completely reconcile the plot. After laying a massive hand of the cards on the table, they fail to explain most of the films most provoking questions.
The final piece of the plot revolves around a dark stranger prophesied to return from the dark waters to lead his people on an earthly conquest under the light of the blood red moon. They wrap their dark stranger in a cockamamie tale concerning a rogue minister from the Donner party. It really makes very little sense and leaves the viewers flummoxed. It feels a bit like they ran out of gas, leaving the audience with an awkward lack of closure.
Messiah of Evil stumbles at the finish line, but overall it offers a visually enthralling mystery that shows influence through multiple admirable sources. Its allusions to Italian cinema pay tribute, but at the same time do not feel contrived. Messiah of Evil does not imitate these films, but rather paints an American film with a European pallet of colors. Katz and Huyk create some very exciting scenes that contribute to the film being highly entertaining.
The fact that the film remains obscure makes Messiah of Evil all that more astonishing. It holds up very well. It’s a fantastic horror gem hiding in the rough.
Messiah of Evil (1973) - Brilliantly Stylistic and Obscure - Malevolent Dark
Director: Willard Huyck
Date Created: 1970-01-01 00:32