“If the cities of the world were destroyed tomorrow, they would all be rebuilt to look like Point Dune. Entirely normal. Quiet. Silent, though, because of the shared horror. I know. It’s hiding now, beneath the stuccoed skin.”
I grew up in the 1980’s and for the longest time my horror tastes were defined by two things – classic horror movies on cable and the horror section of my local video store. That meant a lot of slasher flicks, gore films, 50’s sci-fi and Universal monsters. That’s a bit of a generalization, as I did manage to see a lot of other stuff – and was exposed to more in the pages of Fangoria – but it defined my general diet of horror films.
Sometime in the last twenty years or so, however, I developed a taste for the odd, the low-budget and the surreal. The limited release, indie and exploitation level fare that I only half remember hearing about when I was younger. In particular I have a soft spot for 1970’s horror movies – I think there’s a lot of imagination and energy in those films that got lost as horror became a corporate cash-cow in the 80’s. Don’t get me wrong, I still love that stuff as well (and there are plenty of weird, low-budget 80’s horror films). It’s just that the 70’s were a time you could be fresh out of film school with a hard-on for movies by Michelangelo Antonioni and have someone give you cash to make a horror film just because that was the genre that sold best at the drive-ins. (And then you could go on to make movies with George Lucas.)
I also have a love for a certain kind of horror fiction that’s exemplified by authors like Dennis Etchison – a horror of the urban life and landscape. The fear of empty parking lots at 3am and store fronts with neon and the blank stares of mannequins. Of vacant buildings and the silhouettes of god knows what lurking under street lights as the sun goes down.
These two interests combine in fascinating ways in Messiah of Evil (which was also released under the titles Dead People and The Second Coming). This was the first film for Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who would go on to be screenwriters on American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (as well as Howard the Duck). It was a fraught production, shot on next-to-nothing and with significant post-production issues (which included Huyck and Katz stealing the work print in order to make a rough edit before the producers got their hands on it). The results are uneven and incomplete, with dropped storylines, inconsistent characterization and an ending that doesn’t remotely satisfy. Still, there’s something to the film, a dark and surreal mood, that drew me in – even in the horrible, low-quality formats I’ve seen previously. (Hell, that horrible theme song most copies of the film start with almost made me turn it off the first time I saw it.)
It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but having recently watched Something Wicked This Way Comes I was reminded that Royal Dano has a significant – albeit small – role in the film. So I dug out the Blu-ray (which I own, but have never watched) and set it aside to view as soon as the mood struck me, which was last night!
I have a copy of the Code Red Blu-ray 40th Anniversary Blu-ray release of Messiah of Evil, something I spent some time tracking down. It’s out of print and hard to come by now, but it (or the 35th Anniversary DVD) is the best way to see the film. While not fully restored it looks extremely good – if you’ve only ever seen one of the DVD or online releases it’s something of a revelation. It also includes a short interview/documentary and a commentary by Huyck and Katz. (Though sadly not the interviews with Anitra Ford and Joy Bang that are on the DVD.)
The film is out of copyright, so finding a version streaming or on crappy DVD is pretty easy, but any version that starts with that execrable theme song is a bad version. (Both options available on Amazon are the cropped/low-quality/dear-god-that-SONG version.) There IS a pretty decent copy – sans theme song – on YouTube right now, however.
Messiah of Evil starts with a murder – a young man (Walter Hill, a few years before he’d get a chance to direct his first film). He’s running, sweaty and afraid, before being given sanctuary by a young woman. Whatever he’s running from, he doesn’t really find safety in the innocuous, suburban back yard with it’s lit pool and baby-faced savior. Instead he finds a straight razor to the throat.
Even now, having watched a ‘clean’ version of the movie, I can’t get the taste of that horrible theme song out of my head. Seriously – it’s probably the most horrifying part of the regular release.
Anyway, after that, we’re introduced to Arletty (Marianna Hill) – through voice over as she stumbles down a blurry hallway. There are a lot of voice-overs in this movie, primarily Arletty and, through a diary, her father. I generally dislike narration like this, but for some reason it works here – I think because it enhances the feeling of unreality. And the father’s voice overs, by Royal Dano, are a key part of that mood, feeling significantly like those of a Lovecraft narrator documenting his descent into madness.
This is a very odd and dream-like film. Things happen, maybe in order, maybe not. We’re sort of being told this story by Arletty, but there are plenty of moments that occur out of her experience, so… what are those? Is it an accident that those moments feel more real than the events she herself is witness to?
Arletty travels to the coastal California town of Point Dune. (There’s got to be some haunted stretch of California coastline that includes these small, horror-filled towns like Point Dune and Santa Mira and Antonio Bay.) She’s looking for her father; an artist who regularly visits Point Dune in order to paint. Her last few communications with him were increasingly bizarre and she hasn’t heard from him in a while.
On her way she stops at a gas station where the attendant is shooting at something in the darkness off the edge of the road. He says it’s coyotes, though they don’t really sound like that. When she asks how far it is to Point Dune he tries to warn her off, but he’s interrupted by a truck carrying the creepiest character in the whole movie. The actor, Bennie Robinson, is an albino African-American and his dead-pan delivery and habit of standing completely still is unnerving, as are his off-center eyes. The attendant sees what look like bodies (including the man from the opening sequence) in the back of the truck and is obviously disturbed, though not enough to report it to authorities. Later on that night he’s working on a vehicle when the garage lights go out. He’s murdered off-screen and his bloody corpse hoisted up by the hydraulic lift as the outside lights go off one by one.
It’s a pretty disturbing sequence, in part because of the setting, a brightly lit Mobile station. It’s so bright and normal that the weirdness seems exacerbated. These moments – when the modern, fluorescent settings are overwhelmed by strangeness – are the most effective parts of the film for me.
Arletty goes to her father’s house, which is painted throughout with these creepy black and white images of shadowed people in various urban settings. The walls are covered in them and they’re used to great unsettling effect through the film. Her father isn’t there, but she finds a diary written in a sketch-pad and voice-overs from her readings of them occur throughout the movie.
The next day she goes into town and ends up meeting a man named Thom (Michael Greer) and his two girlfriends/travelling companions, Laura and Toni (Anitra Ford and Joy Bang respectively). Thom is apparently a collector of old legends and when Arletty enters their hotel room he’s taping the tales of an old wino, Charlie, (the inimitable Elisha Cook Junior). The story is about the time, a hundred years ago, when the moon turned to blood and horrible things happened. A stranger came out of the mountains, talking about his time with the Donner Party and the taste of human flesh and promising to return at the time of the blood moon, a hundred years hence.
Guess how much time has passed. Go on. I dare you.
Later Charlie warns Arletty that she has to kill her father, “Don’t bury him! You have to burn him!” This is another touch of Lovecraft, with Charlie and his warnings seeming to echo Zadok Allen in The Shadow Over Innsmouth.
Thom and his groupies show up at Arletty’s father’s house later, having been asked to leave by the townsfolk once Charlie is found murdered. You get the sense that the town is pretty insular and hostile. You may wonder why Arletty actually lets the trio stay – certainly I did – but there’s no explanation forthcoming. It’s the early 70’s, man, just go with it.
Thom goes about slowly seducing Arletty in a fairly ham-handed way – this irritates his companions to no end and one, Laura, decides to leave. After making her way through what looks to be an abandoned housing development she gets picked up by the albino truck driver. When he offers her a rat (after eating one herself) she declines and manages to get out of the truck. (The hurt tone of ‘You don’t want it?’ is both creepy and weirdly funny.)
In town, Laura walks the strangely deserted streets before following a womain into a supermarket that appears to be otherwise empty – until she turns the corner in the meat aisle and finds a dozen or so townspeople eating raw meat out of the cold case. They give chase and finally manage to overwhelm her in an aisle, where they appear to begin eating her alive. This is one of the standout set pieces of the film and is genuinely disturbing. The townsfolk – with their bleeding eyes, grey skin and taste for human flesh – as well as their distinctly commercial setting presage Romero’s Dawn of the Dead zombies by at least five years.
The voice overs from Arletty’s father appear to describe his slow death – and his continuing consciousness afterwards. He begins to bleed from the eyes. Then his body temperature plummets. Finally he can no longer feel pain and his mind is full of terrible thoughts. This seems to suggest that there is a strain of vampirism in the town – though they act like a combination of vampires and zombies. Arletty is also starting to experience symptoms like her father. Her eyes start to bleed and she burns her hand without feeling pain.
Toni, young and bored, heads to town to watch a movie. This leads to another standout sequence, as the theater starts out empty and fills with townsfolk as she watches the film. It shouldn’t work as well as it does – the film being shown, which intercuts the action, is a Western, yet the music is a weird, funky, action-exploitation piece – but it manages to be both surreal and increasingly creepy. Leading to a full-on zombie attack once poor Toni realizes the seats behind her are filled with hungry-eyed citizens.
Things move fairly quickly from that point. Thom looks for Toni in town, but ends up seeing multiple attacks and fleeing from a hungry mob. Arletty’s father returns and attacks her in a bizarre sequence where he slathers himself in blue paint. She manages to burn him (harkening back to the bum’s words from earlier) but it unhinges her a bit and she attacks Thom when arrives, wounding him in the arm. That night they townsfolk attack and Arletty and Thom try to escape, though this proves futile as well.
Of course, the movie is so disjointed and dream-like that it narrative doesn’t appear this straightforward. In some ways this acts to the movie’s benefit, as we’re ungrounded and left wondering what’s real and what’s not. On the other hand there’s enough of a thread of a plot that when things aren’t followed up on it creates a disconnect and dissatisfaction. What really is going on? Why is Arletty so afraid of? What is she warning us about at the end? Who is the dark stranger? Are the townsfolk infected? Undead? Cursed? No answers are to be had, so we’re forced to invent our own. (I think the dark stranger is something like the Wendigo, a ‘bad thing’ that wanders the earth and when it arrives it causes those around it to crave human flesh.)
The Bottom Line
Messiah of Evil is not an easy film to enjoy – it’s very low budget and has only the barest threads of plot and characterization – but if you can settle into it’s rhythm there are some real nuggets of horror in here, as well as an overall eerie and nightmare-like atmosphere. It’s one of my favorite low-budget horror films of the 1970’s, in spite of – and sometimes because of – its limitations.
This is another movie I’d love to see remade, with the plot elements followed up on. The monsters are an interesting blend of different standard genre beasts and of course the idea of horror being found in the bland, urban areas of the modern world is one I find intriguing.