“It was like the redder the moon got up there, the closer people were gettin’ jerked to hell!”
The Scoop: 1973 R, directed by Willard Huyck & (an uncredited) Gloria Katz and starring Michael Greer, Marianna Hill and Joy Bang
Tagline: In order to live, they will take you one by one . . . and no one will hear you scream!
Summary Capsule: A young woman investigating the bizarre disappearance of her father finds his cryptic letters only hinted at the horrors infecting his small beach town . . . and finds herself slowly being infected as well
Kyle’s rating: Don’t go ’round tonight, it’s bound to take your life: there’s a bad moon on the rise
Kyle’s review: Before I was aware that Messiah of Evil was an actual film, I tried to imagine what it would be like. In Woody Allen’s masterpiece Annie Hall, a montage of locations meant to show the utterly plastic soullessness of California (at least via an elitist New Yorker’s perspective) includes a theater with “Messiah of Evil” on the marquee. What sort of movie could that be, I wondered as a young elitist child whose parents encouraged watching movies like Annie Hall but frowned on horror films, forcing me to take illicit steps to see those scary movies I learned to love (thanks Grandma!). Because the film itself was essentially ‘lost’ to everyone during my childhood, I never dreamed Messiah of Evil was a real film being referenced as a humorous aside on the corrupted nature of California.
Thank goodness, then, for the informative and unifying nature of the Internet. Of course, all the relevant factoids in the world would be useless if they were about something unworthy. So much the better that Messiah of Evil is one of those rare films that is a legitimate cult classic (you’ve probably never heard of it, but the people who have mostly revere it) and satisfying if you should seek it out (how many “cult classics” tend to leave you lamenting your time, energy, and wages wasted?).
Similarly impressive is how appropriate Messiah of Evil was to Woody Allen’s purposes. The plot is deceptively simple and straightforward yet utterly invasive: a corruption that undermines all your ‘good’ influences is threatening to spread throughout the world, and its source is, naturally, California. Way to underplay it, Woody!
Actually, the simplicity of the plot was intentional: the infamous directing/producing pair of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (famous for their association with George Lucas, infamous for headlining the disastrous Howard the Duck) took on Messiah of Evil practically as a lark. An agent-turned-producer friend told them he had financing from Texas investors to make a film, only it had to be a horror film. Rather fresh out of film school at USC Huyck and Katz jumped at the opportunity to basically make an experimental/arthouse film with some necessary horror overtones; Messiah of Evil is the result. Well, apparently the money ran out and there were some typical and not-so-typical independent filmmaking hijinks, including the pair stealing the work print so they could edit it, returning it before they could complete it, and the original investors hiring people to finish the film without Huyck and Katz being significantly involved. That the final film is legible is amazing. That the final film is one of the most important works of horror from the 1970s, and probably ever, is improbable.
Arletty (Marianna Hill) keeps up a letter correspondence with her artist father in Point Dune, California, but lately his letters have grown cryptic and bizarre. Before they stop completely he pleads with her to stay away, but concern for him wins out so Arletty drives down to Point Dune to check up on him. Strange occurrences and a distinct lack of hospitality in town fail to discourage Arletty in her search, and taking up temporary residence in her father’s recently-abandoned beach house she resolves to scour the small town until she finds her father. The wandering Thom (Michael Greer), kind of a proto-Fox Mulder only more of a decadent swingin’ urban legend enthusiast than FBI agent, and his two comely consorts Laura (Anitra Ford) and Toni (Joy Bang) basically invite themselves into Arletty’s home and investigation, with all them soon discovering that the moon slowly turns blood red heralds something horrible descending upon Point Dune and almost every resident is welcoming the change with open arms.
Simplicity is the name of the game in Messiah of Evil. The set-up is as basic as can be, and similar to companion films like In the Mouth of Madness and ‘Salem’s Lot. Protagonists try to unravel the secret of a creepy small town even as their prolonged presence there guarantees certain doom. Huyck and Katz wanted to make a visually interesting film and were at best half-hearted about the necessary horror angle. Consequently, Messiah of Evil is a visual triumph, reflecting the filmmakers’ fresh-out-of-film-school solidly basic compositions and their desire to invoke the avant garde artistic styles coming especially out of Europe in the early ’70s. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the beach house, where nearly every wall features full murals of crowds of black-suited people, escalators, long docks, or oversized profiles of unknown people. It’s simultaneously clearly the home of an artist and one of the creepiest homes you could ever spend time within; the strange happenings in Point Dune lending the already-creepy murals with sinister undertones. The visual elements of the film, tending towards the dreamily experimental, imbue the simple story with much more gravitas than typical gore scenes and jump scares could ever provide. The overall lack of these usual horror staples in greatly appreciated; another indication of the overall desire to make a cool-looking film first and a horror movie second.
The horrors of the film are so memorable that I tend to forget how effective its sense of humor is. Laura’s unsolicited hitchhiking-ride-from-hell is pure horror comedy, followed by a foreboding walk through the abandoned Point Dune, is an excellent little vignette of just how bizarre it would be for a sane person hanging out in an insane town. Toni’s one-night banishment from the guest bedroom to Arletty’s hanging bed is another great gag scene: If we had forgotten just how creepy the mural-adorned walls of the house were, seeing Toni’s desperate attempt to fall asleep surrounded by them reminds us. Initially, Laura and Toni are merely helpful indicators of Thom’s alternative lifestyle, but after a few awkward dinner scenes and some excellent nonverbal emotional cat-fighting between all the women (everybody wants a piece of that Thom; it must be the suit) both women become fully-formed characters made all the more tragic for following Thom to their doom in Point Dune.
The combination of dialogue and acting truly distinguishes Messiah of Evil from its genre brethren. Laura and Toni would easily be the ‘final girl’ heroine in any other scary movie; their fates are tied to being too vibrant in a town where people are becoming gray ghouls, devoid of emotions and possessing only mindless hunger. By comparison, Arletty and Thom stand out to some as nearly as colorless as the ghoulish townsfolk. Its an unfair criticism, however. Hill and Greer do exceptional work as people distracted by confusing and bizarre changes and urges from within; Arletty begins to undergo the same inhuman physical changes as her father while Thom feels hazily certain that his ultimate destiny is tied in to the horrors of Point Dune. The acting is valiantly strong through the cast, with veteran character actors Elisha Cook, Jr. and Royal Dano bringing much-appreciated energy and important to their small expositional roles.
Just as Laura’s hitchhiking misadventure is a sharply humorous scene, Toni’s bored search for distraction at the movies is another excellent sequence of escalation, first of humor but then switching to tense horror. Laura’s gruesome yet languid discovery in the brightly-lit supermarket contrasts memorably with Toni’s gradual realization of the surrounding threat in the darkened movie theater. Like the larger film, these sequences are simple, gorgeously-rendered, and manage to communicate vast amounts of plot details and story points largely through mood and composition. A later scene involving police officers is similarly impressive, indicating the long-prophesied disintegration of society (locally? or on a far wider scale?) with merely two cops shooting futilely into a crowd of corrupted townspeople, with somewhat surprising results.
The flashback to the origin of the Dark Stranger is just as classy, invoking the Donner Party Massacre (always a good, historical tale of real human horror to start a scary story from) and keeping the legend of what’s overtaking Point Dune deceptively simple yet thematically rich. Cannibalism seems to be the introductory sin for those who submit to the prophecy of the Dark Stranger, but there is a powerful subtext about the rejection/loss of religion that stays just subtle enough to encourage conjecture without becoming overwhelming. Without intending to pass into overpraise, I’ll remark finally that the final siege on Arletty and Thom is astounding, making great use of all the breakable skylights and windows of the father’s beach house and casting our survivors out onto the beach to attempt escape. Similar to Toni’s gradual recognition of being trapped in the theater, Arletty and Thom being cornered down on the beach in broad daylight is yet another terrific set piece of seeming unescapable doom with an unconventional escape route.
Messiah of Evil is often accused of stealing liberally from Carnival of Souls. In the new DVD release featuring commentary by Huyck and Katz, they claim to have never seen Carnival of Souls and Huyck has only hazy memories of once seeing Night of the Living Dead, which is possible as their commentary and overall oeuvre doesn’t indicate they care much for the horror exploitation genre. That complete disinterest in making a true horror film helps paradoxically make Messiah of Evil a horror masterpiece, accurately seen as a precursor to visually-stylish dream logic films such as Dario Argento’s Suspiria.
Ultimately, I can’t praise Messiah of Evil enough. Even as a mere novelty piece it’s interesting entertainment; as a horror film of small town evil and a prophecy of doom it is visually stunning and deeply-layered. The sort of cult fervor that fuels sites such as Mutant Reviewers from Hell is what kept Messiah of Evil from being completely lost across the decades, and major props go out to Code Red for delivering an exquisite DVD release in 2009 that restores the widescreen Technicolor glory of the film. But to be honest, I found and fell in love with Messiah of Evil in its badly-cropped, crappy picture incarnation on a DVD it shared with the film The Devil’s Nightmare. It’s available in a variety of cheap options (I have an extra copy of the crappy fullscreen version from a set of 50 Chilling Classics of Horror or something; I bought that one at Big Lots). I can honestly say, however, that if you love the horror films of the 1970s and/or think Suspiria is truly a pinnacle of horror filmmaking, it’s worth the $20 to own the indisputably classic film Messiah of Evil in that excellent Code Red DVD form. Just don’t expect pleasant dreams the night you watch it!
- Michael Greer plays the uncredited role of the so-called ‘Dark Stranger’ in the flashback scene and the finale. Based upon this and Greer mentioning in an interview at the time that he would be playing “the devil’s son” in this film, it has been rumored that an excised subplot would have actually developed Thom’s connection to the Dark Stranger.
- Elisha Cook Jr. was only needed for one day of shooting during the production.
- Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz are married, explaining their tag team approach to directing, writing, and producing.
- The film was shot over two months in 1971, although it was not released until 1973.
- Toni’s memorable singing of ‘Amazing Grace’ almost surely inspired a similar scene in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness; I would be quite surprised, that is, if Carpenter himself wasn’t aware and a fan of this film.
- Many of the extras in the film were unemployed NASA workers.
- Michael Greer was pulled over by cops who appeared in the film but didn’t receive payment for their work. The cops then contacted Huyck, demanding their payment or else Greer would be thrown in jail. The cops got paid.
- The astonishing murals in Arletty’s father’s home were created by Gloria Katz’s college roommate.
- Huyck and Katz created the screenplays for films like American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Huyck is most (notoriously) known for directing Howard the Duck.
- Apparently the most expensive item purchased for the film was the impressive suit Michael Greer wears throughout the film.
Arletty: They’re coming here. They’re waiting at the edge of the city. They’re peering around buildings at night, and they’re waiting. They’re waiting for you! And they’ll take you one by one and no one will hear you scream. No one will hear you scream!
Charlie: Don’t be afraid. I’m an ugly old man, but I’m harmless.
Arletty: What about my father?
Charlie: You have to kill him!
Arletty: You’re crazy.
Charlie: You can’t bury him, don’t put him in the ground! You’ve got to burn him! You gotta put fire to his body!
Joseph Lang: (writing in his journal) The visions are coming from areas of my mind that I don’t understand. These grotesque images keep crowding in on me . . . at night I find myself wandering through the town, catching glimpses of horrid animals I know can’t be real. Women with pale faces and shadowy figures, staring out at the black water . . .
Charlie: I remember the red moon my daddy told me about only once. Momma gave him a bad look when he talked about it. He was only a boy himself, then. He called it the ‘Blood Moon.’ He said that was the night that he lost religion, that was the night that he learned men could do horrible things . . . like animals!
Toni: (coming out of the bathroom, rubbing lotion on seductively) I’m really hungry! I’ve got the munchies.
Thom: (to Toni) Shut up. (to Charlie) Go ahead, Charlie. What about the moon?
Charlie: A hundred years ago, the moon started turnin’ red up in the sky and things began to happen. It was like the redder the moon got up there, the closer people were gettin’ jerked to hell. When the people started bleeding outta control! They found children eating raw meat! It was like the town’s festering with an open sore. Until the night that they . . . until the night they came down outta the canyon . . .
Thom: Who came down, Charlie?
Charlie . . . I gotta go.
Thom: Charlie. Take the wine, Charlie.
Thom: (after Arletty has stormed out of the room) An old-fashioned retort!
Toni: What’s a retort?
Thom: Toni, you’re half-girl, half-child, and half-wit.
Toni: (flipping off the laughing Laura) Sit on it, sister!
Thom: (after quasi-seductively coercing Arletty into unzipping his vest) You don’t just unzip a man and say ‘Good night.’
Thom: (after Laura has left) Laura didn’t say anything else? . . . give a girl a pair of shoes, and she walks out.
Jospeh Lang: (in his journal) July 20th. 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 in common. I know what’s hiding now, beneath its stucco skin . . .
Town official: (to Thom) After this is over and we get through with some paperwork, ah, I think you should take the young lady out of town. We’re not really a tourist town, and strangers . . . only bring problems.
If You Liked This Movie, Try These:
- The Fog (1980)
- House of the Devil
Hey, just wanted to say great review! I’ve loved this movie ever since finding it in a 50pack of horror-type collection! I’m so jazzed that Code Red has picked it up, & just ordered a copy today. Any idea if “Toni” is played by the “androgynous 10” at Tony Lacey’s party in Annie Hall? I see a resemblance of sorts…