Directors: Willard Huyck, Gloria Katz
Stars: Marianna Hill, Anitra Ford, Michael Greer
Everyone has their favourite era for horror movies. For a lot of people, the 1980s are unbeatable, pumped up on the stylistic tics of MTV and the outré hair and fashion styles of the decade. For others, the 1930s offer all of the peerless Universal classics, or the ’50s boast atomic oddities and the rise of Hammer in Britain. I’m a ’70s fan, and particularly the bounty of regional independent horror films that bubbled under and across the United States.
The most cruelly neglected of these is Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz’ 1973 offering Messiah of Evil, a film of quite profound unease that prefigures a number of classics, skirts between subgenres and delivers one of the most genuinely frightening 90 minutes in cinema. This is a film that ought to be as celebrated as much as popular crossover classics The Exorcist or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but isn’t. Poor availability accounts for some of its obscurity. One hopes that this state of affairs will be rectified soon so that the film can be fully embraced as the masterpiece of malaise it is.
There’s a desolate, end-of-days feeling to the film that comes decades ahead of the pre-millennial tension it so uncannily evokes. Marianna Hill stars as Arletty, a woman looking for her missing father who travels to the coastal town of Point Dume. Her narration from within a psychiatric ward casts the bulk of the film as a flashback, and adds a Lovecraftian sense of foreboding. Whatever’s in store leads inexorably to madness.
Even before she arrives at her father’s (incredible) beachfront house we’re confronted with grim portents. A stop off at a gas station is potent with the kind of dread usually reserved for restaurant bin shelters in David Lynch movies. Arletty is accosted by an albino local (Bennie Robinson) who is hiding bodies in the bed of his pickup truck. She is allowed to leave this encounter without incident, but there’s a distinct insinuation that this decision is not really hers. This starts the ball rolling on the widening paranoia that the film so insidiously conjures. And the sense of conspiracy amid the remaining townspeople.
Rural horror in the 1970s was peppered with such cultish paranoia, perhaps off the back of the Manson Family incidents that so fascinated print media. You’ll find a similar sense of hayseed pack mentality in the likes of Let’s Scare Jessica to Death from 1971 or any number of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ hickspolitation pictures from around this time.
Messiah of Evil is a far slipperier proposition though. It creates unease through emptiness. Point Dume is an oddly abandoned little town, giving the film a post-apocalyptic feel, as though its desolate and offbeat inhabitants are among the last people on Earth. The sound design feeds into this sense of barrenness. The music is delicate, funereal and – frequently – notable for its absence. There are great spaces in the soundtrack, filled only by the relentless crashing of distant waves. This sense of lack is scary. No music. No ambient sounds like people or cars. Messiah of Evil is frighteningly empty, and empty of saviours. It feels, in a word, damned.
Arletty finds a small group of listless bohemians cruising around her father’s beachfront home, not seeming to be in a hurry to get anywhere. Shut out by the local motels, she invites them to stay with her. The house they collectively inhabit is a ghostly place. The walls are painted with noir-ish scenes of abandoned urban places, or else feature pop art renderings of the ghouls that lurk around the town. This original and eye-popping production design helps to further the sense of both abandonment and voyeurism. We feel like the characters are being spied upon even as they display malaise and inertia.
The mood in the house is forlorn even before the horrors without turn within. Art dealer Thom (Michael Greer) makes scant attempts to woo Arletty, but it doesn’t really seem as though his heart is in it. One gets a sense of a ’60s hangover in progress. All the free love has run out and Thom and company are left dismally adrift. His companion Laura (Anitra Ford) splits first, furthering a sense of things ending, only to have a sinister encounter with the albino man that Arletty ran into at the gas station. Now his pickup is filled with moon-fanatics, but they appear as lifeless as the corpses that previously occupied the same space.
It transpires that the majority of the townsfolk have been transformed into blood-thirsty ghouls under the influence of the ‘blood moon’. They’re not quite zombies, but their pack behaviour prefigures George A Romero’s Dawn of the Dead by half a decade. They gather in the places that used to sate them. Scenes of them devouring raw meat at the deli counter of a supermarket are stark and unforgettable, while the sequence that later leads to the death of supporting character Toni (Joy Bang) is one of the most effective in all of American horror cinema… taking place within a horror cinema.
Toni is the third and youngest of the bohemian types that shack up with Arletty but she runs off to the movies in town for something to do. The theatre is deserted when she walks in and sits but, slowly, the seats around her start filling with the ghouls, until she is surrounded. Realising their presence – and that she is locked in with them – Toni flees to the front of the screening room where her own terror replaces the scenes of violence previously playing on the big screen. Violence and horror has bled into her reality… and ended it. It is an astonishingly rendered set-piece.
Conspiracy furthers when Arletty is presented the supposed corpse of her father as a rouse to get her to stop asking questions. In voice over, Arletty’s missing father intones journal entries that document his own transformation into something other than human, and Arletty’s own ears start to bleed, suggesting that a similar process is beginning in her (and her own horror at hearing this grim confessional). It is as though just being in the town of Point Dume is enough to trigger this demonic change, giving Messiah of Evil a strange and prescient sense of ecological disaster; of the environment itself being corrupted, polluted, spoiled.
Eventually, Arletty’s father (Royal Dano) turns up, spouting scant and unsatisfactory exposition of how a surviving member of the Donner Party arrived in the town a hundred years earlier and began a religion that seeded the vampiric/cannibalistic horrors happening now. When I say unsatisfying, I mean in the sense that it doesn’t quite explain everything. This only adds to the general horror of Messiah of Evil. It’s sketched mythos works in its favour, adds to its power. It remains frightening because a lot of its secrets remain unknowable.
A lot of the time people criticise characters in horror movies for their stupidity and poor choices, not realising that this sense of worked up frustration is part of what powers our responses. Messiah of Evil generates a different kind of agitation, though. Here, the inaction of the film’s heroes is both maddening and bewitching. We want them to leave the town with haste, and are confounded that they don’t. Indeed, Arletty and Thom’s lethargy seems like a symptom of the town’s dark influence. When the inevitable siege of the house occurs, it seems sudden, fast, overpowering. These people are no longer equipped for a quick response and the feeling of danger is acute.
Arletty’s escape is nominal, as that haunting voiceover returns, and her confinement to a sanatorium attests. Messiah of Evil ends on a note that has the feel of a story told around a campfire. Something unsettling to think about in the dark afterward, when you should be trying to sleep…
There are plenty of boutique companies who might bring a handsome remaster of Messiah of Evil to our hands. Arrow Video. Eureka!. Indicator, etc. One hopes that such a release surfaces soon, perhaps in time for next Halloween. Until then, I’d urge you to find it where you can. This is one of the great American horror pictures, and its eerie obscurity feels like the result of a strange conspiracy all of its own. I love it.