CHILLING CLASSICS MONTH: Messiah of Evil (1973)

Between great design, reviews of junk food and lots of great info on the artists behind horror movie posters, there’s a lot to love about the site Camera Viscera. Here’s one more: Doc, the creator of the site, has sent this article on Messiah of Evil!

The best word to describe Messiah of Evil (really, the only word to describe the film) is surreal. With its vampire-zombie hybrid antagonists and rundown seaside setting (not to mention its pseudo-satanic undertones) it’s a movie less concerned with weaving a cohesive narrative than it is stringing together as many odd characters and bold set pieces as it can in its belabored 90-minute runtime. But what Messiah lacks in grace (and budget, and continuity, and comprehension, etc.) it makes up for in genuine curiosity.

When the film opens, a young woman named Arletty (Marianna Hill, who also acts as narrator) is driving to Point Dume, a sleepy seaside town along the California coast, in search of her artist father from whom she hasn’t heard in some time. When she arrives at his beach house, she finds no sign of him, but she does find a diary he left, seemingly for her to read. The journal entries are ominous and cryptic, warning her of not only the other-worldly dangers that seem to inhabit the town, but also unsettling changes that are happening to her father.

Through no real explanation, she eventually hooks up with a trio of fellow out-of-towners: Thom, Toni, and Laura (Michael Greer, Joy Bang, Anitra Ford). Thom seems to be on a similar hunt of his own, searching for answers surrounding the type of portents Arletty’s father’s diary warned about. Thom’s motivations are never clearly explained, but that’s par for the course with Messiah.

One of the signs Arletty’s father warned of is a blood moon, which eventually appears in the sky one night, setting off the chain of events described in his diary. Locals wander aimlessly on the beach, their heads transfixed skyward. Hordes of blood-thirsty flesh-eaters stalk the streets at night. People bleed from their eyes. Our titular Man in Black (who we come to learn was a member of the fated Donner Party) shows up to greet his disciples. No one seems to know what the hell is going on, including the viewer.

After a few inspired but poorly executed set pieces (the two best ones involving a supermarket and a movie theater), the film crescendos into a battle of survival for Thom and Arletty at her father’s bungalow. Despite its minuscule budget, the film manages to deliver some surprising action, including a few falls-through-a-skylight and even an extended full body burn. Alas, even these dazzling displays including the supermarket and movie theater scenes aren’t enough to make the film feel anything less than a slog. The highlights are too few and far between, sandwiched amid a shuffle of go-nowhere scenes and mostly sluggish performances.

Messiah was released theatrically in 1973, under no less than four different titles, and getting it to the big screen was no easy task. According to Ford, “…shot in 1971, this movie was originally titled The Second Coming. Towards the end of the filming, investors pulled their money out, and the film was never finished. A Frenchman bought the unedited footage, edited it and released the movie under the title of Messiah of Evil.” And indeed one of Messiah‘s greatest weaknesses is its editing. Scenes abruptly end, dialogue isn’t synced properly, jump cuts abound. It’s all very slapdash, and it shows.

The film was written and directed by husband and wife team, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, and to say they have had an interesting career in Hollywood would be an understatement. The same year Messiah was released, the duo who happened to be friends with George Lucas, serendipitously enough ended up being asked to write American Graffiti and later Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, as well as being tasked with writing and directing the unanimously derided bomb, Howard the Duck. It’s about as strange a journey as Messiah of Evil itself.

Messiah is arthouse exploitation. Equal doses of trippy visuals (for the pompous types) and goopy low-budget viscera (for the rowdy types). Though not as refined as its contemporaries, it still shares shelf space with the likes of Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Burnt Offerings, The Witch Who Came from the Sea, and others. It’s a niche but important sub-genre, one whose entries flow with the languid, dreamlike pace that only a movie from this era could. Gauzy visuals and strange happenings like your brain after a long night of drinking.

While I’d recommend a few other titles before this one, Messiah of Evil is worth a watch if you’re an exploitation completist looking for a break from reality.

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