|Messiah of Evil (1973)|
|Director:||Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz|
|Writers:||Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz|
|Starring:||Michael Greer, Marianna Hill and Joy Bang|
|The Plot: The story opens with the despondent diction of Arletty Lang, a woman who was placed in an asylum after her encounter in a small town called Point Dune. She had gone there in search of her father, Joseph, a local painter who moved there after Mrs. Lang passed away. In the ensuing years, his letters became Arletty’s only form of contact with her father. Sensing something was wrong from his depressing and threatened messages, she drove to Point Dune. Upon finding his house empty, Arletty discovers she’s in a town filled with strange people, and is forced to trust a trio of swingers: Laura, Toni and Tom, the latter of whom is also searching for Joseph. Tom is a major in mythology who wants to learn about the town legend that the moon on the side of Point Dune turned blood-red back in the 1800’s. As the four of them stay in the Lang house, strange events occur as the people of Point Dune begin droning around the town at night. Soon, Arletty will discover what’s so important about the blood moon as well as her true role in searching for her father: as the Messiah of Evil rises back into power.|
Amidst its montage of ambiguity, weak budget and slow pace, Messiah of Evil (aka: Dead People) is a highly memorable and creepy look into supernatural horror as seen from the eyes of genuine visionaries. Directed by Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, the couple who co-directed Temple of Doom, Messiah of Evil is the reason why I love watching obscure Horror movies: amidst all the stones, you’ll occasionally find a gem like this one.
Messiah of Evil is a very atmospheric Horror movie. While it has its share of blood and gore, its primary terror is focused on build-up, subtlety and stark imagery. This atmosphere is reflected in the razor-sharp cinematography. From the very haunting opening asylum narration, to the mundane but out-of-place locales, the movie sets up real-life locations that are visually unsettling or quietly wrong in their bleak emptiness. Have you ever wandered your neighborhood at night when its really quiet, especially on a normal night when there should be some late night drivers or some activity? You know that eerie feeling with that lack of human activity going on, that social emptiness enveloping everything? That’s the kind of atmosphere this movie has. The empty, noiseless town of Point Dune makes for a creepy sit.
The many extras in the movie add to the great cinematography, such as the Drones of Point Dune who stare vacantly at the main characters or the changing color of the moon. En masse, the Drones of Point Dune are a genuinely scary force; one may equate them to pre/1970’s Rage Zombies or may even call them the living dead, but they are of a much different caliber of group-conformity cannibals… especially when you find that they are not zombies or the living dead in any way shape or form. What makes them so creepy is that, unlike today’s squealing, wiggling, obnoxious Rage Zombie, they are very quiet. The only noise you hear from them is the ravenous chewing and wide mouth eating of flesh they make. Every scene they’re in makes them a genuine threat, be it the streets, the grocery store or even the movie theater.
Also, mostly done by the great Jack Fisk, the art direction is pretty top notch in the movie. We first get a hint of the art direction in the beach house of Joseph Lang. The walls are all painted with the faces of people in every day situations, but the color to every person, the shading and detail of the paintings make them look alive. Even the movie’s use of colors in various scenes helps add to the tension. While it’s mostly an overuse of blue lighting effects, the hue gives every scene a rather ghostly feeling. I won’t spoil it for you, but one of the best set pieces they use in this movie is a vary particular window. Christ, the location scout for this movie was awesome!
The soundtrack makes this movie great in many ways. It not only escalates the atmosphere, but it also gives the movie the synonymous tone of the ‘70’s Horror movie: electronic, ambient music. The kind of stuff you’d hear in a game composed by Akira Yamaoka or Nathan Grigg. Composed by Phillan Bishop, the soundtrack emphasizes on the haunted feelings of the movie and the all around bleakness of its settings. Come to think of it, the in-town ambiance actually sounds like the underwater ambiance in Deep Fear which kind of makes sense. I once slept in a beach house one summer, and the sound of the water from indoors almost sounded like a muffled rain. There are a lot of songs in the movie that give it its strange and chilling personality such as the opening narration, Arletty reading one of her father’s memos or intended letters, characters exploring the town at night, the humming of a character introduction or a scene of exposition. I know it’s barely audible, but the music that plays when Tom describes his dream to Arletty really serves the movie’s tone: quiet and peaceful, yet despondent. There are a few kooky tracks in the movie though, like when some of the Drones attack Arletty near the end or how every now and again a cat-noise effect is used for a surprising Drone attack. Still, the main theme of the movie, “Hold on To Love,” is a very pretty song and is just as haunting as the rest of the movie.
The acting is pretty spot-on, too. Marianna Hill does a good job of the Daddy’s Girl character and carries a very gentle personality to her character. She seems toughened only by the mundane, yet shows signs of bearing a psychological fragility throughout her performance; overall, she makes a good lead character and so does Michael Greer. Micheal Greer’s character Tom is a very cool cat. He’s charming, but quiet. Charismatic, but collected. When things start going crazy, he becomes a very likable survivor of the madness. If anything, I’m pretty sure Greer’s suits ate a good portion of the film’s budgets; there’s no way they got those at a thrift store.
I gotta admit, this movie really opened up my interest in actress Joy Bang, because she plays a drug using, supposedly teenage, quasi-hippy girl (okay, so, my first girl friend), and her screen presence was pretty fun. I’m actually kind of a Royal Dano fan by heart but the role he gets in this movie is perfect. The magnitude of his lines and intensity of his character’s presence just drips with this otherworldly sense of importance, not just to the scene but the movie.
It’s funny seeing Anitra Ford as one of Tom’s girls in this movie. not because she fits the part and is very attractive, but I’m always reminded of her role in Invasion of the Bee Girls every time I see her on screen. During that hair-dryer scene, I thought she was going to have big black insect eyes when she walked out! It’s also fun seeing Charles Dierkop (Silent Night Deadly Night) in the movie too, though he doesn’t do much this time around. I have to mention the Albino Trucker character. I don’t know where they found that guy, but the character was delightfully creepy in every scene he was in and actually, pretty well acted (“DO with them? I EAT them, that’s what I do with them”)!
As much as I like the cannibal Drones of this movie, there is a lot of ambiguity surrounding them. For example, whatever is infecting them seems to affect people at random and out of nowhere. It has no effect on Tom’s trio or the town drunk, yet they’re in the town as much as the next person. It’s clearly not a viral infection going around, but a little information would help explain why the Drones seem invulnerable to bullets, but die instantly with a whack to the head. In fact, there two scenes where female Drones are taken down simply by pushing them to the floor!
There are a lot of notable and awkward moments in the movie, though. Whether it’s a bad editing choice or a moment where they clearly didn’t have the budget to show what was happening/supposed to happen, the lacking funds are noticeable. There’s only one scene where the police intervene, and it barely lasts a minute. What’s really funny is how the car drives up, the cop inside orders the Drones to disperse, and both cops just start shooting at the oncoming drones. That, along with a scene where a woman from the suburbs goes into town to get help, seems to suggest the magnitude of this event, we just never see or hear of it anywhere else.
Also, there’s this insane editing bit where Tom is out walking at night. He sees someone running away from something, so Tom runs after him (Why?). Tom looks over his shoulder to see a crowd of Drones chasing him, but in the next scene he’s all alone. Then one Drone attacks him, disappears and reappears in the next shot whereupon he pushes her to the ground. I wish that was it, but the ending takes the cake for terrible movie editing. I realize this movie had a limited budget and probably had time constraints on it, but the final scene mostly consists of narration describing what happened to Arletty, and describing her current situation. We barely see anything of the movie’s actual climax which consists of two shots before going back to the asylum from the movie’s opening. It’s kind of a bummer, too, because one of the characters pulls a dual role in the movie, but it’s never elucidated on in the final version of the movie.
Do I even need to talk about the special effects in the movie? There’s a very unconvincing puking scene that, in theory, would be genuinely unnerving, but the effects are unintentionally funny. Needless to say, a real live beetle with some muddy bile effects on em’ would have made that scene chilling. Hell, even the rat scene required a bit more fake blood. Many of the death scenes do not require Grade-A effects, but some animal intestines from the local butcher would have escalated the gruesomeness immensely. Instead, one character gets drowned in thick, red, fake blood, while in one scene I swear they used a fried pork chop for the effect. Then there’s the occasional poor use of a stock sound effect, like a wolf howl or a distant scream. I’m surprised they didn’t use the Wilhelm scream for the police shoot out.
According to one of the actresses, the movie’s investors threw up their hands near the end and the rest of the film was finished by an outside source who bought the rights to the unedited portions of the film. It’s one of those The Slaughter/Snuff kind of scenarios, where a lot of interesting stories could be told about the movie’s making and it’s fascinating to think what the movie would’ve looked like had things gone the way they were supposed to. Would it have been better or worse?
I give it a veritable recommendation, even despite its glaring budgetary and editing problems. From an Art Film perspective, the movie is clever and carries a lot of social commentary on its shoulders like the significance of the Blood Moon to most of the Drone attacks happening in places that contribute to mass consumption and sociological gatherings. From a Horror movie perspective, the movie is all about build-up, atmosphere and tension.
I don’t know how many times I can say this, but I encourage you to watch this movie. Halloween party or not, Messiah of Evil is a crazy, creepy and very thoughtfully put together movie despite its budget. As far as availability goes, your options are limited. It stayed in the Public Domain for a long while and was featured in a Brentwood 10 DVD box set called Tales of Terror and it was released as a double feature with The Devil’s Nightmare. I own it on VHS just to add to the grainy feeling of it all, but it did recently get a 15th Anniversary DVD release. Regardless of which one you get, you are in for something unique. On a final note, I kind of wish they didn’t show such a chopped up trailer for Gone With the West during the movie because as fun as that movie is… ‘Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye’ sounds like a damn cool movie.