Messiah of Evil (1973)

From the Makers of American Graffiti…

I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking, “You dumb, silly bastard, you.  No way the makers of a fine, upstanding movie like American Graffiti would make something like this.”  Think again, dear readers.

From the writing team of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz comes 1973’s Messiah of Evil.  Huyck and Katz collaborated a few times, and, yes, one was the aforementioned American Graffiti.  Another they worked on was a little known film by the title of Howard the Duck, but that’s for another time.  Oh, I promise you that is for another time.

The dynamic duo of Huyck and Katz didn’t just write this flick, but they also produced AND directed it.  But that’s the way it worked back then.  You wanted to make movies and you’ve got enough money to do so, go for it!  Make a little scary movie for practically nothing and maybe one day you’ll get to make movies with George Lucas.

This movie comes to me by way of the 50-movie Chilling Classics set.  The synopsis is as such: “A young woman travels to a small California seaside town to visit her father, an artist.  When she arrives at his home, she finds him missing and his home filled with numerous paintings of his creation.  The woman decides to explore the town to find out what happened to her father and discovers some strange happenings involving the local populous.”

With a running time of 90 minutes (oh god, I hate when they are feature length), and starring Marianna Hill, Michael Greer, Anitra Ford, and Joy Bang (heh), I give you Messiah of Evil!

Oof…  I can say, right off the bat, the movie starts rough.  Okay, so there’s a guy running about.  I suppose he’s being chased by people?  He finds a young girl in an incredibly short dress who comes to help him but then she slices his throat.  Okay, so this is a nice start, but why is it so bad?  It’s got a HORRIFICALLY BAD song about “hold onto love” or some such shit.  Maybe not the way to lift your spooky movie off the ground.  Really.  Not good.

Then we move to what looks like something of an insane asylum.  A woman talks about how nightmares are bad and stuff and that everyone’s waiting for her to scar her breasts and some other bad things (yes, I only really perked up when she said breasts).  Then the movie flashes back to her talking about going to the seaside town where her father has been staying.  She said she would get letters from him all the time until they suddenly got weird and she decided to go see what was up with that.  She stops at a Mobile station where the attendant is firing a gun like a madman at some howling animal.  This might be the first sign that this trip was a bad idea.

Sign number two would be that this girl is exceptionally pretty (like 1970s supermodel pretty) and traveling alone.  Sign number three is the next guy who shows up is some weird albino with dead guys in the truck bed.  Yes, all albinos are creepy and weird enough to trump all other signs that this might be a bad idea, but, you know…  After the Mobil station clerk is left alone, some sort of “person” (I’m saying it like that for now because it might have been a monster, it might have been a zombie, but it was definitely a bushy headed being of people-like form) pops up out of a car in the garage and kills the attendant.  Don’t get to see anything of the death, but the bloody attendant is strung up afterwards.

The girl makes it to her destination but finds no one.  There’s a pretty decent shot of a sail being blown in her face unexpectedly that reminds me a little of Dario Argento.  Whenever I can say that, I suppose that’s a good thing – unless it’s one of Dario’s shitty movies, then it’s not so good.  Anyway, she breaks into the beach house and doesn’t find her father even after calling “Father” without moving her mouth.  She does find a bunch of weird shit though like paintings of people all over the walls like murals.  Otherwise, the place is a bit of a wreck with lots of random things kind of strewn about.  She does ultimately find a journal of weird ramblings from her father about not sleeping, shadowy figures, and grotesque things.

So in looking for more info about what happened her father, she travels into town.  She’s told by a flatly sarcastic art dealer that some people came looking for her father and said they were staying at a motel in town.  When she arrives, she finds an aristocrat with two traveling sex tarts listening to an old drunk tell some weird stories.  The aristocrat says she knows of the girl’s father but he was not allowed to buy any of his paintings at the art gallery.  When she left, the old drunk tells her that she’s gotta kill her father but can’t bury him – she has to put him to fire.

Later, the aristocrat and his ladies arrive at the artist’s beach house.  He tells the girl (Arletty) that the old man was later found dead and half eaten.  After the police questioned them about the old man, no hotel would let them rent a room, so Arletty let them stay.  So we get to know more about the aristocrat (Thom) and the two girls, Laura (a snobby former model) and Toni (an uncultured dummy).  Later, Thom’s walking along the beach and briefly oversees some ritual around a fire, but you can’t really see what’s going on and they spend very little time on it because Thom and Arletty need to have some sexually charged dialog in her underthings.

Tired of his shenanigans, Laura decides she wants to split.  She can’t take a car because she doesn’t have the keys, but, as “luck” would have it, the weird albino drives by and offers a ride.  Things take a turn for the even worse when he shows off a rat he caught on the beach, and eats it in front of her.  Everyone in the back of the weirdo’s truck is just staring at the moon.  She walks about town only finding one person who ignores Laura after she calls out to the person several times.  It’s like the entire town is deserted.  When Laura enters the grocery store, she sees a couple other people but they seem to simply glance at her and go about their business.  When she comes around to the meat aisle, she sees several townspeople eating raw meat.  She tries to escape, but is caught and devoured by the townspeople.

Back at the beach house, Arletty sleeps as a shadowy figure enters and turns on the light.  The figure leaves before Areltty is awoken.  The scene plays out particularly well in a very creepy way as she investigates why the light is on.  She walks about and finds that the door is open and one of her father’s paintings is bleeding from the eyes.  While Arletty talks to Thom about what she’s feeling, Toni goes out to Arletty’s bed and tries to sleep.  In every direction she looks, Toni sees people staring at her (the murals on the walls Arletty’s father painted).  While Toni tries to get comfortable, there’s a female form scratching at the window trying to get in – a shot that is incredibly effective.

The next morning, Arletty is contacted by the local police saying they found her father’s body.  After Arletty and Thom return, Toni tells him that somebody came to the house, but she didn’t know who it was because she said it was only a noise that sounded like somebody crying.  When she looked to see who was there, she found no one.  While hearing the voice over of Arletty’s father talking about passing blood and his body temp being down to 85 degrees, she finds blood trickling out of her ear.  In the kitchen, she accidentally has her hand in the flame on the stove but doesn’t feel the pain from being burned.

While Thom and Arletty deal with that, Toni is sent to the movies where she is surrounded by only a few, but one, in particular is staring at her creepily.  As the movie plays, more people enter the auditorium.  This scene is kind of funny because we’re treated to just random scenes from a generic western intercut with people filling up the auditorium behind Toni without her notice.  Soon, two people sit to either side of her causing a bit of alarm in her.  When they look at her, they have blood dripping from their eyes.  She turns to see the rest of the people with the same problem.  When she tries to escape from the auditorium, the doors are jammed.  She’s viciously attacked and eaten.  (I should point out at this time why I don’t feel too bad about Toni being eaten – it’s because she’s a turd of a character.)

While all this goes down, we get some shots of a blood moon.  As that becomes more prominent, things are escalating and the townspeople are becoming more and more monstrous.  Thom is downtown when things start to get a little nutty and is soon chased by the townspeople.  Back at the beach house, Arletty’s getting more and more weird and she sees in the mirror that her eye is bleeding like the others in the movie theater.  He eventually runs into a girl who tells a story about her family being attacked and he sees her eye is bleeding and she says, “It’s too late.”  Thom, not being a dummy, walks away from her realizing whatever is the problem in the town is affecting her.  At the beach house, Arletty is pricking herself with a needle testing that she cannot feel pain.  When she vomits, a bunch of bugs and lizards come out.

Thom witnesses the police ordering the crowd following him to disperse.  After opening fire on them, one cop turns to his partner to reveal his eye is bleeding and after not being stopped by bullet to the throat the partner shoots the other cop to give the crowd a tasty meal, allowing Thom to escape.  Meanwhile, Arletty is met by her father at the beach house who tells the backstory of what’s going on in the town.  Apparently, a priest from the Donner Party had turned to an evil power and lived.  When he partially ate a hunter in the wilderness, he swore he’d return in one hundred years.  So, what this preacher brought to this town was a form of vampirism that also resembles what you’d see in a zombie movie.  They can make others zombies, but they also eat their victims – which could really be anything.  Remembering what the old drunk told her earlier, she does successfully kill her father by burning him when he tries going after her.

The next morning, David returns to the beach house to find Arletty’s father smoldering in a hunk of burnt person on the floor and Arletty appears to be nowhere to be found.  Suddenly, Arletty comes screaming out of a closet with a knife and slices Thom’s arm.  He tells her he came to get her instead of leaving town but she wears it’s too late for her.  She patches him up and he tells her about how the people were acting in town.  After collapsing, Thom is resting but it may be too late for him too as his ear begins to bleed like Arletty’s did.  Above, the townspeople break in through the skyline and bust through doors and walls to take them.  Thom knocks one out and uses the body to act like a piece of meat to hungry dogs.  Thom and Arletty escape onto the beach.  They are followed and attempt to swim out to a boat they see out on the horizon.  Thom’s injury causes issues for him swimming and he eventually drowns.  Arletty is saved by the people and she was set up to to be a sacrifice to the priest, but instead of taking her, he decided to let her go to spread word of this tale, but because she wouldn’t be believed, she’s tossed into a loony bin where she’ll stay pretty much forever.  We get more of that fucking terrible theme song and credits.

All in all, this was a really, really good movie. While there is pretty much zero true gore (some blood, yes, guts, no), and really not much in the way of bad language, it gets an R rating.  Maybe I can see how it could get that in this day and age because of the idea of flesh eating people, the satanic nature of the blood moon prophecy that plays through the movie, and the swinger nature of the leading man, but honestly, this is a horror movie that doesn’t use overly grotesque visuals to really keep you liking it.  This is all about mood.

And that’s my favorite type of horror movie – those moody, creepy flicks that make your skin crawl from anticipation or some sort of extra-sensory feeling you get in the atmosphere presented.  That’s what Messiah of Evil brings to the plate.  I really kept waiting for things to go overboard in zany shit, but it didn’t.  I kept waiting to see something really gross, but I didn’t.  I kept waiting to see more about this “dark stranger” (the priest) that was referred to but you don’t really.  This has a much more realistic feel to it.  You’re kept waiting for things to turn really bad, but they don’t really.  Instead, you feel trapped and, in a way, going a little insane yourself.  You could almost make the argument that none of this really happened and this is the ramblings of an insane woman in the loony bin.  I mean, you can’t make that argument because there’s no real evidence to support that, but you get what I’m saying.  There’s a really solid surrealism to it that I loved.

There’s a lot of talk in the father’s journal about dreaming or not trusting that what he was seeing was really truth, and the movie plays to that exceptionally well.  In every scene in which there was a death, the visuals and the atmosphere was like a goddamn nightmare.  So much so, the movie smash cuts away from the deaths as if being startled from a dream.  So, you can’t so much make the argument that the movie is simply the ramblings of the woman in the loony bin as much as you can say this feels like a dream world the woman wandered into the moment she arrived at the Mobil station.  Like she and Thom were sleepwalking through the horrors of the little town.

The more I think about this movie, the more I realize how glad I am I watched it.  It’s obscure and little known and done on the smallest of budgets, but damn if it isn’t something worth watching.

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