Messiah of Evil (aka Dead People, 1973) Movie Review

A horror gem by the writing and directing team behind “Howard The Duck”? Hard to believe, but this is the genuine article, a largely forgotten early ’70s classic filled with moments that are so uncanny, the term “Lynchian” would be perfect had the David Lynch brand been invented in 1972. Available under your title of choice, from “Dead People” to “The Second Coming” and “Revenge of the Screaming Dead”, “Messiah Of Evil” is a peculiar film by any name.

The story takes place in the California coastal town of Point Dune, where a reclusive artist named Joseph Lang (Royal Dano) lives and works in a large house on the beach. His daughter, Arletty (Marianna Hill), having received a series of increasingly strange letters from the old man, has come to Point Dune to check on his condition. The letters and his diary all lead us to believe that he has either gone insane or has been taken over by evil forces. She, of course, discovers that he has mysteriously disappeared, but is even more alarmed at the strange people who populate the town, all of whom seem to be suspicious of her.

Arletty runs into a very odd stranger named Thom (Michael Greer), who dresses like J.R. Ewing and is traveling with a pair of young girls who look like runaways. He claims to be some kind of local history nut looking into the past of Point Dune, and offers to help her find out just what happened to her father. He also looks like he wants very much to get into her pants. The fact that he asks her to help him with his zipper doesn’t challenge this observation. Nonetheless, they all go back to look around her father’s very creepy house, which has high walls that are adorned with life sized murals of random people just standing and staring.

They are then subject to a series of strange events and a run in with Elisha Cook, Jr. as (what else) a crazy old drunk who tells them something or other about what bad things will happen to them when the “Blood Moon” rises. Or something. What unfolds is a phantasmagoria of nightmarish scenes involving characters coughing up insects and lizards, living dead albinos biting the heads off of live rats while listening to Richard Wagner, and two absolute classic scenes of horror: one set in the meat section of a large supermarket (a real foreshadowing of “Dawn of the Dead”), and the other in a nearly deserted old movie theater.

The entire film builds up a dreamlike tension and somnambulant paranoia unlike any film since Carl Dreyer’s “Vampyr”. The coolly detached, blankly read narration by both Hill and Dano contribute greatly to the dead air feel, and the entire effect seems to be just the kind of disjointed dream memory that director Jesus Franco failed to achieve throughout his long career.

Besides the “Duck” debacle, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz were responsible for the better received screenplays for “American Graffiti” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”. The screenplay for “Messiah of Evil”, one of their first, is an amazingly bizarre concoction, mixing the Romero-esque living dead with classic Lovecraftian storytelling and a time capsule comment on the aura of violence in America during the Vietnam war and the aftermath of the Manson murders.

The power of “Messiah of Evil” comes from the fact that Huyck and Katz never allow the movie to settle into one groove, rather as a political allegory/satire ala Romero himself, or as a straight arrow horror flick. The two elements are fused together by a trippy drugged out surrealism that renders the events of the film hallucinogenic. They achieve this by book ending the film with an unreliable narrator, the lead character Arletty, who is probably insane when the movie begins, which leads us to question the entire tale’s reality.

This device goes all the way back to Robert Weine’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” in cinema, as well as Lovecraft and Poe in literature. Poe’s fiction, in fact, laid down the groundwork for much of the modernist writing of the mid-20th century by authors such as Kafka and Beckett. In stories like “Ligeia”, Poe utilizes narrators who cannot quite remember many important details, and are not sure whether or not certain things did or did not happen. This was once considered lazy writing, as though Poe did not care to waste time creating any backstory. On the contrary, it is this technique of ambiguous blankness that keeps his fiction alive today. The stories seem to make sense on the surface, but remain disturbingly uncertain all the same.

It is impossible to know what, if anything, actually happened to Arletty in the town of Point Dune. There is a disturbing randomness to everything that does happen, and just who are actually involved. Why are the two young women traveling with Thom? One of them, Laura (Anita Ford) is described as having performed in shows with snakes. The other underage looking girl, Toni, is played by an actress with the incredible porn queen name of Joy Bang. Toni seems bored out of her mind. Both girls act like gangster molls to Thom or maybe even brides of Dracula.

Thom himself is a complete enigma. He claims to be in Point Dune researching its history. Why? And why is he so interested in Arletty? Is he the hero or the living embodiment of the “Messiah Of Evil”? Should we trust anyone who spells “Tom” with an “H”? It seems as though Huyck and Katz intended for the character to be revealed as the “Dark Stranger” and then just changed it up in the editing room. As it stands, the character remains ambiguous and disturbing when he simply disappears during the climax, leaving Arletty to her fate.

If you look closely, it does seem as though actor Michael Greer is playing the part of the “Dark Stranger” in the short flashbacks explaining the basis of the local legend. These scenes are odd as well, seeming to be thrown into the mix much like the terrible expository flashbacks in the recent “Silent Hill” movie. That was self-destructive because it seemed as though Christophe Gans and Roger Avary were repudiating their entire dreamlike approach by trying to explain everything before the last reel. Anything that seemed interesting in the first hour of “Silent Hill” was now rendered comical and absurd through the literalization of abstraction. In “Messiah of Evil”, the flashback is just as clumsily placed, but does no damage to the hallucinogenic atmosphere because the town legend explains almost nothing at all.

During the flashback, Huyck and Katz make a point to construct their legend around the tragic history of the Donner Party, whose notorious journey through the Sierras ended in a series of bad decisions and incredible misfortune that led them to resort to cannibalism for survival. Their fate has always been a reminder of the high price many paid for the American dream. Huyck and Katz create a mythology about a “Messiah”, a Donner Party survivor who arrived in Point Dune dressed in black only to spread death in the town before returning to the sea until the time comes to rise again. Arletty’s father relates this legend to his daughter before he tries to kill her. He loses control and splatters himself with red and blue paint as well as turpentine before being set on fire.

These are telling decisions made by the filmmakers, suggesting some kind of American flag burning in the flesh, set within the context of the dark side of the pioneering drive that helped build the nation, leading to the more modern America of corporate control. As only a low budget film could, “Messiah” depicts a violent death in the hydraulic lift of a Mobil gas station. This is clearly not an example of positive product placement. Throughout the film, there is a palpable sense of simmering violence, of a world coming apart at the seams. But Huyck and Katz are smart to just suggest it and move on, avoiding the kind of pretentious nonsense Abel Ferrara used to drive a stake through the heart of his “vampire” film, “The Addiction”.

Technically, the film shows the strains of its low budget and the usual early ’70s print damage. It would be great to see if a company like Anchor Bay could dig up the negative and remaster it for a new release on DVD, since the cinematography by Steven M. Katz (“Animal House”, “The Blues Brothers”) is often quite effective. Particularly in the night exteriors on the empty town streets, Katz achieves the kind of black on black velvet night that Dean Cundey later made famous in his collaborations with John Carpenter.

The film’s production design by future David Lynch and Terrence Malick collaborator Jack Fisk is absolutely brilliant. The beach house itself is a masterpiece of low budget art direction. The life size mural of what seems like hundreds of random people staring at the characters is unforgettable. Huyck may not be a brilliant visualist in the manner of an Argento, but he is very skilled at creating the impression of the uncanny through very simple, almost minimalist means.

Like many of his generation of “movie brats”, Huyck also knows his film history quite well, and in the aforementioned movie theater set piece, he channels Hitchcock’s “The Birds” by slowly filling an empty auditorium with a series of spooky zombies, all waiting to feast on Joy Bang. The sense of building dread in this scene is amazing, with Miss Bang only slowly realizing that she is no longer watching a terrible Sammy Davis, Jr. western by herself. If only Huyck could have sustained the tension for longer stretches of time. As it is, the film doesn’t so much end as just fade away, but maybe this was the intention since it is disturbingly strange to watch a movie that just drifts into oblivion.

The early ’70s was an exciting time for filmmaking. The ’60s had reinvented and reawakened American cinema through the influence of the European art film. The art cinema of the late ’50s/early ’60s was largely a bold and open challenge to the nature and form of cinema itself. Filmmakers from Antonioni and Fellini, to Godard, Rivette, and Truffaut were experimenting with the forms of cinematic storytelling and with the archetypes of pulp genres. The fact that a film could work both as genre and as personal statement was something new and exciting.

Huyck and Katz clearly had this in mind when writing “Messiah of Evil”, and the resulting film is one of the primary examples of a certain subgenre of “art horror film” that vanished by the mid ’70s. Other films from this period include John Hancock’s brilliant mood piece, “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death” and Bob Clark and Alan Ormsby’s Vietnam era twist on “The Monkey’s Paw”, the Lewtonesque “Deathdream”. These days, only Larry Fessenden is really working in this mode with his small thinking man’s horror stories like “Habit” and “Wendigo”. These films provoke chills while examining the nature and origin of these folkloric tales as well.

“Messiah of Evil” is the kind of movie that’s made from its flaws as much as its strengths. The incoherence of the screenplay is actually a prime example of great horror storytelling. On the surface, it pretends to explain all, but the “explanation” only succeeds in raising more questions. A great horror film leaves giant holes in the screen for us to project our own fears and does not reassure us in the end that all is well. At its most basic level, a good horror story is about uncertainty, and “Messiah of Evil” is one of the most uncertain movies ever made.

Willard Huyck, Gloria Katz (uncredited) (director) / Willard Huyck, Gloria Katz (screenplay)
CAST: Michael Greer … Thom
Marianna Hill … Arletty
Joy Bang … Toni
Anitra Ford … Laura
Royal Dano … Joseph Long
Elisha Cook Jr. … Charlie

Buy Messiah of Evil on DVD