Willard Huyck, Gloria Katz, 1973
Starring: Marianna Hill, Anitra Ford, Royal Dano, Elisha Cook Jr.
After an opening sequence where a man is killed in a town square in the middle of the night, a young woman, Arletty, goes to a small California town in search of her father. He was living in Point Dune, a strange town on the beach, and his abandoned house is full of his unsettling art work and his diary, which Arletty reads for clues. He tells her not to come looking for him and that something horrible is happening to the town. The owner of the local art gallery is reticent, but points her towards three strangers in a nearby hotel room - Thom and his companions Toni and Laura - who are allegedly there to learn about the legend of the blood moon.
An old man warns Arletty that she must kill her father and burn his body, but she thinks he is mad. When he is found dead, Thom, Toni, and Laura are kicked out of their hotel room and invite themselves to come stay with Arletty. She reluctantly agrees. Events around town become more and more menacing and they eventually learn that the locals are undead and, like ghouls, will eat humans and animals, living or dead, during the night. They worship the moon, wait for something unnamed to arrive, and begin to hunt Arletty, Thom, Laura, and Toni. Laura is cornered in a supermarket and Toni is trapped in a movie theater. Thom and Arletty try to escape, but soon the blood moon rises and the Messiah of Evil returns...
Though still fairly obscure, Messiah of Evil has had somewhat of a revival thanks to the internet and Code Red’s great remastered and restored DVD (which has a number of exciting special features). Highly recommended, there is nothing quite like Messiah of Evil, though it fits in with a loose subgenre of American horror from the ‘70s that was clearly inspired by European art house cinema and is made up of bizarre, eerie, and sadly neglected films. I’m going to look at number of these over the next few weeks, but Messiah of Evil is certainly among the finest.
The film was written, produced, and directed by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, a husband and wife team also sadly responsible for the awful Howard the Duck, though (bizarrely) they also wrote American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The sense of style here is truly incredible, despite the obviously low budget and it is perhaps this element, more than any other, than allows for comparisons to European art horror, such as the work of Mario Bava. There are numerous obvious influences all used to great effect, such as Carnival of Souls, Night Tide, and a chilling scene reminiscent of The Birds.
There are also Lovecraftian elements at play: the small, seaside setting full of odd townsfolk who keep to themselves, ghouls, strange artists, the use of two unreliable narrators, and so on. Atmospheric and creepy, Messiah of Evil wastes no time rolling out a series of dread inducing, disturbing scenes that build in intensity towards the conclusion. The gas station scene - the first sequence with Arletty - is genuinely disturbing and does not flinch at preparing us for the things to come, all while leaving us in the dark about what is really happening in Point Dune.
The acting in Messiah of Evil is surprisingly solid, despite some awkward dialogue. The beautiful Marianna Hill (Schizoid, High Plains Drifter) stars as the melancholy, yet captivating Arletty. Michael Greer (The Rose) is decent as Thom and Joy Bang (Night of the Cobra Woman) and model Anitra Ford (The Big Bird Cage) appear as his sexy, doomed “traveling companions.” Genre regulars Royal Dano (The Outlaw Josey Wales, Something Wicked This Way Comes) and Elisha Cook Jr. (House on Haunted Hill, Rosemary’s Baby) both make welcome appearances, particularly Cook as a rambling, paranoid drunk - another staple of Lovecraftian fiction. On a final note, the score work is some of my favorite from American ‘70s horror and includes a mix of minimal electronica from Phillan Bishop and ambient sounds that range from a hair dryer to the howling wind or the constant roaring of the ocean.
Messiah of Evil is something that must be seen to be truly appreciated. Though, as I mentioned, there are some other, odd entries into ‘70s horror, this is an exercise in unrelenting dread and offers a fresh take on messianic cults, possession, and the undead. It may also be the most Lovecraftian film not actually based on a Lovecraft tale. It comes with the highest possible recommendation.