Messiah of Evil (1973)

The beauty of a Mill Creek box set is that amidst the dross, there are films of incredible power. Sure, you’ll suffer through old television shows, barely incomprehensible Spanish horror and video store era throwaway junk, but then you’ll be rewarded with a film like this. Messiah of Evil isn’t just a legendary once lost film returned to power. It’s a work of art that feels like it came from beyond the wall of sleep, the place where the Ancient Ones  wait to come back and reclaim their rightful and most horrible power.

You can watch Messiah of Evil on several levels. On the most basic of levels, it’s a film about Arietty (the never before or since more lovely Marianna Hill) attempting to find her artist father in the cursed town of Point Dume, California.

It’s also a zombie movie of sorts, made in the wake of Night of the Living Dead, where an entire town slowly becomes the living dead. As they bleed from the eyes and lose all sensation, to begin to crave meat from any source, be it an entire grocery store’s meat department, mice or human flesh. Once they give in to their transformation, they light fires on the shore, as their ritual of The Waiting anticipates the Dark Stranger’s return to glory, leading them toward taking over the rest of reality.

Or is it about the final days of the class struggle that started in the 60’s? The zombies nearly all wear suits while their targets, like collector of legends Thom (Michael Greer, who would go on to provide the voice for Bette Davis after she quit the film Wicked Stepmother) and his two lovers, Toni (Joy Bang, who worked with talents like Roger Vadim, Norman Mailer and Woody Allen before Messiah) and Laura (The Price is Right model Anitra Ford), are free love visions of style. Yet the Dark Stranger cuts through class, even turning cop upon cop near the climax.

Parts of the film were never fully realized, but that doesn’t matter. Some critics complain that major plot points and the lead characters’ motivations are never fully explained. Even the most normal people in this film act like the strangest characters in others. At no point does it feel like we’re watching a movie set in our reality. This is a transmission from another place where our surrealism is their everyday.

Messiah of Evil was created in an environment that will never exist again — the New Hollywood that starts with traditional studios panicking as their blockbusters and musicals would stall at the box office, while films like Easy Rider succeeded. Suddenly, deeply personal films would be made within the studio or even exploitation systems. Indeed, the previously mentioned Night of the Living Dead is packed with politics and social commentary, things only hinted at in past horror and science fiction films. This trend would die with the return of the blockbuster, with Jaws and Star Wars. In a moment of true irony, the creators of this film — the husband-and-wife team of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz — would go on to direct Howard the Duck and write American Grafitti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom for Goerge Lucas.

This is a movie where the heroine finds herself in the throes of undead transformation, throwing up mouthfuls of insects while the shade of her father begs her to not tell the world what she knows before he attacks her. After murdering everyone else in their path, the dead things of Point Dume don’t kill her. No, they resign her to an even more horrible fate: she must spread the legend further so that once the Dark Stranger arrives, more of reality is receptive to his grasp. She ends the film in a mental institution, knowing that one day soon, the end of everything we hold dear will arrive.

I love that the Chilling Classics set was sold in K-Marts and WalMarts, places where normal people would find this asynchronous transmission from another place and time and wonder what the hell they were watching. Much like the infection of Point Dume, it finds the right people. It discovers the best way to transmit its message to those most willing to spread its legend. It survives, no matter what, despite not being finished, despite age, despite being lost.

The absolutely amazing art for this article is by Francine Spiegel and can be purchased at Exhibition A.

BONUS: You can listen to Bill from Groovy Doom and Drive-In Asylum discuss this movie with Becca and me right here.

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