Messiah of Evil (1973) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Messiah of Evil (1973)

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Point Dune, California is host to an artist's colony and stiff, if helpful, townsfolk.  Arletty arrives at Point Dune looking for her father, and soon discovers there's a whole other side of the town waiting for the arrival of their dark messiah.  Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz wrote the screenplay for and directed Messiah of Evil, which stars Marianna Hill.

My urge to laugh at Messiah of Evil was the most pleasant minute of its run-time.  How could I not?  There's a disheveled man stumbling around in the dark while some cheesy tune singing about messages to the wind and stories to the sea strummed about on the soundtrack.  That urge died as quickly as the unidentified man when he stumbled into pale blue light, under the watchful eye of a stoic girl, who takes advantage of the moment he catches his breath to slice his throat open before the film cut to darkness.

Blue to red, black to white - Messiah of Evil continued working in extreme contrast long after my urge to laugh died.  The tone that kept me terrified throughout is more firmly established in the scene following the excellent misdirection of the opening.  In a blinding hallway, a black figure emerges and starts a monologue about how no one will hear you scream.  Again, potentially cheesy, but the light is so bright that the figure emerges like someone experiencing a reverse near-death experience, and Arletty's (Marianna Hill) scream so piercing that even a nervous chuckle would be cut cold.

I assure you - by this point, I wasn't laughing.

Messiah of Evil comes from the minds of writer/director/producer team Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz.  Little in their résumé would suggest that they had a film like Messiah of Evil in them as they would go on to co-write the screenplay for George Lucas' American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.  They've got a fertile imagination for horror as Messiah of Evil is dripping with dread in the wake of Charles Manson's murders and visually often feels like the nightmare version of the kind of walks experimental filmmaker Maya Deren used to take.

Hoping for visual continuity is madness inside Messiah of Evil.  I had to rewind an early sequence three times to make sure I didn't miss a transition as Arletty pulls up to a brightly lit Mobil gas station, only for the following shot to showcase a man shooting his gun into a firm wall of darkness.  Even watching the scene in slow motion, which I had to do to convince my brain - yes - one shot followed the other, the transition is so jarring that I dropped any pretense of making logical sense of Messiah of Evil.  That fared well for my viewing experience as barely a minute later an ominous albino giant drops off two corpses with their throats slashed right before the attendant is killed.

Part of why Messiah of Evil works so well is due to Huyck and Katz's directness.  They don't play coy with the fact that something is wrong with Point Dune, so with that bit of exposition shoved aside they could focus their energies on making everything in Messiah of Evil feel uneasy.  It works unnervingly well, from little details like Arletty's bed being suspended by dirty chain links to whopping oddness as when Arletty takes a trip to the beach dressed in what looks like a black burlap sack and finds a smoking pile of...something...on the sand.  Even Point Dune's electrical system caught whatever evil is going around with a light bulb bursting as Arletty's uninvited guests use the blow dryer.

What's worse is when Huyck and Katz seem to anticipate my nervous attempts to laugh through some of the most terrifying moments.  The best is the sound design and editing in a chase featuring prim folks in suits eating a pile of raw meat.  There's a comedic element to it as their shoes come clapping down like a tap routine.  But the editing is arrhythmic to the sounds, which grow like a coming rainstorm, cutting between the suited chasers and their victim against the beat.  It's almost a relief when the chase comes to an end as my vision and hearing settles on one victim being devoured.  The same principles are applied to the voiceover, some by Hill and others by Arletty's father Joseph Long (Royal Dano.)  They deliver exposition but serve mainly as emotional texture, keeping Messiah of Evil moving along at an unsteady clip.

The hippies lack a sense of personal space, but they're constantly framed with something worse surrounding them in judgment.

A film like this resists easy reads, but the key is in the stark black and white paintings Arletty's father made.  In the United States, there's this tendency to over-correct to crises.  The Charles Manson murders gave those who longed for the "good ol' days" of the '50s a reason to fear hippies, Nixon came to power in-part through fear of counterculture, and the Vietnam War shelved as well as it could be for Henry Kissinger to orchestrate his war crimes.  The hippies of Messiah of Evil are creepy, and more than a bit predatory, but ultimately benign in contrast to the forced politeness masking the cannibalistic nature of the townspeople.  It fits that the only reason Arletty survives is to spread the word of the new messiah's coming in her conservative gown.  Her father's paintings once hovered ominously over the hippies, now they've come to life demanding the same black and white conformity.

Still, that's all me trying to make rational sense of an often irrational film that derives its horror from being so disconnected, and I was near nervous tears for the middle stretch of Messiah of Horror.  It's quaint, in a way, how the bloodthirsty behavior of buttoned-down conservatives used to be locked behind disguises.  But by the end there's no need to pretend and, today, it's not hard to feel a bit of resonance with the woman locked away for telling the truth about the darkness on the horizon.

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Messiah of Evil (1973)

Screenplay written and directed by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz.
Starring Marianna Hill.

Posted by Andrew

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