These pictures speak to what frightens us, what motivates us when we’re trapped in the direst set of circumstances. By unlocking these fears, we’re informed about just how we got to this place – what it means to ignore the warnings of prophecy or reject the advice of those who might know better – and how far we’re willing to sacrifice our individual humanity in pursuit of living another day. Such examinations might tell us where we’re headed as a society, and they might even produce a diagnosis that the social justice warriors among us use to enact whatever form of positive social change they find necessary to propel us into the next generation. Sadly, such revolution will last only until the next trend in terror puts us on a new trajectory, leaving that vicious cycle to play out over and over and over again … or, at least, until those of us who seemingly knew better are little more than six feet under or ashes in colorful urns on mantles of our descendants.
But sometimes into this process a motion picture gets inserted that doesn’t quite fit the bill. Let’s say it’s a story not unlike a beautiful young woman going in search of a lost father who never quite finds him but does locate a seaside town where residents worship some creature from the past whose return will herald a new age of atrocities. Though this film may have all of the elements prescribed to produce nightmares for the audience, it’s strung together so curiously – with far too many vague intentions and characters – that it instead musters up little more than a collective headache.
For me, Messiah Of Evil is such an attempt.
And – unlike it – I won’t leave you hanging for answers.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
“A young woman goes searching for her missing artist father. Her journey takes her to a strange Californian seaside town governed by a mysterious undead cult.”
Horror – much like comedy – can be difficult to achieve the desired results. For example, what I find funny isn’t exactly what you find funny – and so on and so forth – and Horror works much the same. What truly frightens me isn’t necessarily what truly frightens you, so the task of both evaluating and recommending such films for mass consumption can be a trying experience. So I do try to approach both of these genres with what I think is a very broad brush, honing in on the specifics of what worked and what didn’t as opposed to concentrating solely on what’s funny (or horrific) and what’s flat (or unscary).
Does that make sense?
Well, that statement alone might make more sense than does a significant portion of Messiah Of Evil. Frankly, the film’s void of any messiah to begin with – oh, yes, there are some rather obvious hints – and just what his (or her) role might be both in the film and across its story was handled with far too much restraint for my tastes. Evil works best when it’s fully defined – with all its blemishes – but this Messiah trafficked in too much atmosphere and too little specificity to be appreciated beyond just film scholars, genre fanatics, and academics. It’s never truly scary, to be honest, though it does deliver some occasionally infectious ideas here and there.
Written and directed by the team of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (the same team that just over a decade later would produce – with George Lucas, nonetheless – the cinematic fart that was 1986’s Howard The Duck), Messiah stars the beautiful Marianna Hill as Arletty Lang, a young maiden with (apparently) no real past who goes in search of her father Joseph (Royal Dano) reported missing from his residence in Point Dume. (For reasons I can’t figure, the town is rather vastly regarded as ‘Point Dune’ across the World Wide Web, but it’s rather clearly spelled P-o-i-n-t D-u-m-e in the film’s materials. So sue me, haters.) Arletty finds no big clues in his curiously artistic home but manages to locate his written journal which basically only clarifies that the village and its residents are not quite what they seem … as if the audience didn’t already know.
Still, she does find a seaside world that’s curiously out-of-sync in ways that defy the mechanics of typical small towns. No one seems to speak to one another. They spend their days walking about in a kinda/sorta zombified stupor, and they’re even occasionally shown bleeding from their eyes or munching on packages of raw meat at the local grocery store. The curator of the local art gallery – a place where Arletty’s father showed some of his works – is run by a blind woman. At night, the townsfolk gather on the beaches, light small bonfires, and stare in silence at the surf constantly berating the shore. There’s a suggestion that they’re waiting for something or someone, and this reality feeds heavily into Messiah’s second half, though it’s ultimately left unresolved (so far as I can tell).
Part of my problem in both understanding and endorsing Messiah is that its narrative rarely if ever clarifies what’s authentically going on.
For example, in an early scene Arletty stops at a roadside gas station for service only to discover the attendant wildly shooting his revolver in the adjacent field. Though he says something about wolves and/or dogs howling in the night, the audience is never told what he’s up to nor why this scene is even in the film. The attendant does become a victim of a violent albino (Bennie Robinson) who appears several times in the picture, always tied to such acts of civil disobedience; but his increasingly bizarre behavior is never defined. He’s macabre and violent for the sake of being macabre and violent.
And, frankly, I could go on and on and on with many more examples because that’s a good degree of what makes up this overall plot of Messiah. Strange scenes – along with some bloody sequences – are strung together with what I can only suggest was desired to create the atmosphere of ‘something wicked this way comes.’ If all of this was tied directly to the village’s history, then why couldn’t it have been perfectly spelled out? If they’ve been like this for decades, then how is it that there are still residents who’ve seemingly resisted the temptation to resort to cannibalism and the like? So very much of what transpires within feels like it was intentionally plotted out to be nothing more than weird; and weird without context is just … well … it’s just plain weird.
Messiah very strongly reminded me of another picture, 1981’s Dead & Buried (directed by Gary Sherman). In that film, the new sheriff to a small seaside town slowly uncovers a very dark secret about the residents and himself; and the script as fashioned by Jeff Millar, Alex Stern, and Ronald Shusett takes the audience on this journey of discovery, concluding with our lead’s unearthing his own dark fate. In ways big and small, Messiah feels like this was an earlier attempt to crack open the veneer of a sleepy yet equally exotic locale to find a cultural monster lurking beneath. The problem, however, is that so very little is spelled out, leaving me – as the voyeur – to fill in the blanks and make sense of pieces that should’ve been assembled by a better storyteller … unless confusion was the intended result.
The real shame to all of this is that both Hill and Greer showed up and hit their marks, as did Bang, Ford, and even Robinson. No one ‘phoned it in,’ and it’s very clear these players were committed to bringing something authentically bizarre to life; I just wish I knew more about what that was. Heck, even the great Hollywood regular Elisha Cook Jr. has a few good scenes wherein he’s clearly trying to warn Arletty that residence in Point Dume does not come without consequence; sadly, she ignores his cautioning probably because so much of what he said made so very little sense … much like I found this film.
If you’re looking for special features? Blu-ray.com has a full listing of them, so I’m doing the copy-and-paste from their site for posterity’s sake:
- NEW 4K RESTORATION from the best-surviving elements of the film from the Academy Film Archive (2023)
- Uncompressed mono PCM audio
- Audio commentary by critics and horror experts Kim Newman and Stephen Thrower
- Archival interview with co-writer-director Willard Huyck by Mike White from the Projection Booth Podcast
- A new documentary on the film with more information to be revealed
- Visual essay on the American Gothic by critic Kat Ellinger
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Time Tomorrow
- Limited edition 80-page booklet featuring new and archival writing
- Limited edition of 3000 copies, presented in rigid box and full-height Scanavo packaging with removable OBI strip leaving packaging free of certificates and markings
Recommended, but …
I’ve always been a fan of obscure films, mostly because I try to go into the whole experience with some intention of figuring out why a feature may or may not have resonated more strongly with audiences; but I’ll admit I find all of the high praise I’ve read online for Messiah Of Evil more than a bit confusing. While the production easily scores some impressive marks on creating and heightening atmosphere, the script from Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz explains so very little of these characters and what’s happening that I’m at a loss over what to make of a few sequences. If this makes sense, Messiah ‘feels’ more frightening than it ever ‘shows,’ and I believe those who are apt to spend their spare time trying to figure out what it all meant will enjoy this one more than most. It’s an oddity … but in a good way.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Radiance Films provided me with a Blu-ray screener copy of Messiah Of Evil (1974) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.