❉ ‘Messiah of Evil’ falls somewhere between arthouse and grindhouse, early George Romero and late Mario Bava…
Once again, it’s 3 A.M. and you find sleep evading you. Time to go for a drive, you think; down a lost highway that runs by the sea. You might be able to catch the sun coming up. But as you cruise along the coast, all you can see is a blood-red moon, an empty gas station, and a signpost inviting you to take a left and visit a town named Point Dune.
Pitched somewhere between early George Romero and late Mario Bava, Messiah of Evil manages to rise above its exploitation roots by handling its Lovecraftian zombie plot with far more class and imagination than one usually comes to expect with this sort of thing. Hardly surprising given that it was co-written, and co-directed by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz; they would later write American Graffiti, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and… um… Howard the Duck (1986).
Anyway… Arguably, Messiah of Evil is husband and wife team Huyck and Katz’s crowning moment. Opening with a switch blade throat slitting that wouldn’t be out of place in a Giallo and told in flashback from an asylum, the film follows Arletty (Marianna Hill, whose name is misspelled on the credits) as she goes in search of her missing father, a famed painter who has retreated to the seaside town of Point Dune, which in centuries past was known as Bethlehem until the locals saw the moon turn blood red a hundred years earlier. All she finds upon arriving at his huge, derelict house (after narrowly and unwittingly avoiding getting herself murdered at the local gas station) is his collection of off-kilter, Bill Stoneham-esque artwork (which occupies entire walls) and his diary filled with delirious phrases such as “…horrid animals I know can’t be there,” and, “…shadowy figures staring toward the black water.”
After checking the local art gallery to see if they knew her father, Arletty discovers she’d not the only one looking for him. Others have been asking about him, and the art dealer sends her to the Seven Seas Hotel. There, she meets local drunk Charlie (Elisha Cook Jr, who delivers the best performance of the film, which is hardly surprising—he’d been playing psychos and weirdos for 30 years at this point), along with the very mysterious and decadent Thom (Michael Greer, in a rare straight role, in both senses of the word) and his permanently stoned lovers Toni (Joy Bang) and Laura (Anitra Ford). At Thom’s insistence, the four visitors sit in silence in order to listen to Charlie’s rambles about blood moons and a Dark Stranger, which in lesser hands would come across as an exposition dump but which Cook turns into an Oscar bid. As Arletty leaves the hotel, Charlie corners her in an alley and warns, “You gotta kill him. If you love your daddy, you will kill him… You gotta burn him!” Charlie is, like the local drunk in Lovecraft’s Shadow Over Innsmouth, the only sane man gone insane; everyone else in town, like the blind gallery owner and her waspish sidekick, or the gas station attendant (Charles Dierkop) and his corpse-transporting albino trucker customer (Bennie Robinson) has an air of threat to them even before shit really hits the fan; victim or villain, none of these people are anything but creepy.
Point Dune is one of those Little Towns with a Dark Secret, made all the more weird in that it’s filled with the accoutrements of modernity such as glass-fronted electrical appliance stores and modern 24-hour supermarkets. It’s in one such supermarket that Laura meets her comeuppance, having split after catching Thom creepily making his moves on Arletty after they all haul up together at her father’s house following Charlie’s off-screen demise. Laura is devoured alive by a bunch of rabid middle class white folk in a scene worthy of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) but predating it by two years. The supermarket sequence is genuinely unsettling, particularly the moment when Laura catches a group of locals (including a preist) chomping down on the displayed at the raw meat counter. The next day, Toni is despatched in an equally sticky and creepy manner as the undead slowly fill up the seats surrounding her in a local cinema. As Arletty’s father writes in his diary, “If the cities of the world were destroyed tomorrow, they’d all be rebuilt to look like Point Dune.”
Arletty herself is plagued with visitations from a shadowy figure late at night, and she, too, begins to show symptoms of the vampire plague, finding a bite wound on her neck, vomiting up bugs and attempting to attack Thom with a knife. Eventually, once they have both recovered, they go on the run, but the townspeople await them with their bonfires on the beach, lit as beacons to guide the Dark Stranger in from the sea…
Actually, a definitive explanation as to what the hell is going on is always just out of reach. We’re given a collection of facts; a legend of a blood moon, a series of gruesome murders, mysterious gatherings on the beach, and a stream of sinister goings on, but, as in The Creeping Flesh (1973) and The Shout (1977), we’re never quite sure if we’re the victim of a Caligari-esque unreliable narrator. Greer’s character in particular is highly enigmatic; his motives seem rather vague, and though he’s firmly on Arletty side, the actor has a duel role not only as Thom but as the briefly glimpsed Dark Stranger as well.
Much of the film is reminiscent of Herk Harvey’s soul directorial effort, the classic Carnival of Souls (1962), but with a Gallio aesthetic. Influentially, with its “woman in trouble” plot, point-of-view shots of headlights on highways at night, Edward Hopper influenced widescreen cinematography, and art direction by Eraserhead (1977) and Mulholland Drive (2001) production designer Jack Fiske, it occasionally evokes 90s-era David Lynch by way of 70s grindhouse. It’s even tempting to wonder if Matthew Barney had the early gas station scene in mind when recreating Gary Gilmore’s real life murder spree in Cremaster 2 (1999).
Built as much on atmosphere and character as shock and horror, Messiah of Evil falls somewhere between arthouse and grindhouse, eschewing gothic horror for the terror of modernity and updating its living dead antagonists to suit-wearing middle class normals who happen to eat human flesh. Here the monsters are the straight-laced, upstanding citizens, while the forces for good are druggy, polyamorous, jaded intellectuals. There are weird little details like a shot of a sleeping Arletty that resembles a Gustav Klimt painting, or the unnerving moment when Toni casually fiddles with the radio only to find static. It all adds up to a film that is far more intriguing and engaging than it has any right to be; an unnerving gem that shines amidst its trash contemporaries.
❉ About the author: Jonathan Sisson studied Moving Image at the University of Central Lancashire and produced several short films. After that, he became an actor and has appeared in several film and television productions.
❉ Jonathan Sisson’s 2001 film ‘The Institute’ is now online on Vimeo and can be seen here: https://vimeo.com/193049022