APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MESSIAH OF EVIL (1973)

AKA Dead People; Messiah of Evil: The Second Coming; Return of the Living Dead

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DIRECTED BY: , Gloria Katz

FEATURING: Mariana Hill, Michael Greer, Anitra Ford, Joy Bang, ,

PLOT: Arletty travels to the quaint seaside burg of Point Dune in search of her father: apprehensions grow when she meets the unwelcoming locals, reads her father’s crazed diary entries, and discovers the legend of a mysterious figure who returns to his cannibalistic flock every hundred years.

Still from Messiah of Evil (1973)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: One of this site’s features is the Indelible Image: that one shot or scene that stands out in a movie when all the other strange and disturbing visions have faded from view. Messiah of Evil feels like an attempt to make a feature film composed entirely of Indelible Images. It’s entirely about creating a queasy, unsettling vibe, and that it does, in scene after scene.

COMMENTS: Messiah of Evil springs from the minds of filmmaking duo Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who in 1973 were having quite a year. Their script for American Graffiti catapulted them onto the A-list, while this threatened to pull them right back down. Having sat on the shelf unedited for two years, Messiah was finally bought and hastily released, which makes it all the more impressive that the unsettling vibe Huyck and Katz were going for seeps through.

The opening five minutes is a spectacular smorgasbord of mixed messages. A man (played by future The Warriors auteur Walter Hill) breathlessly runs from something terrible, while a turgid ballad plays on the soundtrack in which the singer speaks to the wind. Then a pretty girl slits the man’s throat, and we’re transported to a mental asylum where an exhausted woman unspools a tremendous mood-dump, warning us that “they’re waiting for you” and saying of a town on the coast that “they used to call it New Bethlehem, but the changed the name to Point Dune after the moon turned blood red.” Then she lets out a bloodcurdling scream, which cues the song to return and plops us back to the woman’s arrival in town just as a gas station attendant wildly fires a pistol into the darkness. If you’re looking for a film with a high WTF-factor, Messiah of Evil is off to a terrific start.

The film works very hard to keep you off-balance throughout. Part of that is the bevy of offbeat choices that occur at every turn. At an art gallery in town, the manager is an old blind woman whose fingers move across Arletty’s face “like a pale spider.” An albino truck driver happily offers to share his light snack of live rats while cranking “Wagner” (pronounced like Lindsay rather than Richard) on the radio. The walls of her father’s house are covered with mirrors and murals that stare at her unceasingly, including one that appears to be a very large Lee Harvey Oswald portrait. There’s nothing in Messiah of Evil so strange that it can’t be made just a little bit stranger.

Even better is when those weird twists end up being directly connected to Huyck and Katz’ story. Following up a lead at a motel, Arletty finds a bizarre trio of wanderers: Thom, a long-haired, nattily-attired fellow who oddly resembles a lithe Stephen Fry, and two disinterested hippie girls, Laura and Toni, with varying attention spans. We meet them listening to an extensive monologue/info dump from a disheveled wino. When the vagrant turns up dead the next day, Thom and his coterie move in with Arletty, because why not?

The girls’ most important contribution to the film is to be the focus of a pair of standout setpieces in which they fall victim to the appetites of Point Dune’s hungry residents. Laura’s decision to skip town seems like an aimless diversion until she ends up at a mostly empty grocery store (it’s a Ralphs, for the benefit of our readers in either California or Night Vale) where a group of patrons make a squishy, slurpy buffet of the raw items at the meat counter, and then make a meal of her. Toni meets her end in a similarly creepy fashion at a movie theater, where the empty auditorium quickly fills up in precisely the same manner that The Birds populates its school playground with avian aggressors. These scenes are the best illustration of the kind of horror Huyck and Katz are interested in: a slow, methodical, and inevitable sense of doom that can’t be debated, understood, or avoided.

The movie works best when it’s not trying to fulfill your expectations for a comprehensible plot. For example, Royal Dano’s dread-laden narratives are head-scratching when you try to mine them for clear explanations, but sharply effective when you focus on the batty circumstances he describes. (It’s extra fun to imagine that Dano is invoking his most famous role, that as the voice of Disneyland’s Abraham Lincoln animatronic.) The less sense things make, the more potent the film’s dark vibe. And that turns out to be fortunate, since there is so much that does not make sense in Messiah of Evil. This quiet little picture packs a lot of mood. It’s best not to come to town looking for more.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The miraculous alchemy isn’t that Messiah of Evil suddenly turns good at any point – the acting, in particular, remains comically atrocious throughout – but that it somehow uses its badness as a tool, rather than a limitation. As the film depicts increasingly weird, threatening, and ultimately violently behavior, the very film itself seems to have become possessed by a spirit of evil.” – Tim Brayton, Alternate Ending

(This movie was nominated for review by Pinstripe Hourglass. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

3 thoughts on “APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MESSIAH OF EVIL (1973)”

  1. I love this film. It’s just so unnervingly eerie. Although the acting is pretty bad, it has an almost European art film sensibility (or at the very least, a Carnival of Souls mystique) that elevates it to a well-deserved cult status, not least for it’s two knockout set-pieces (one in a supermarket, one in a theater). In several scenes, this film really amps up the creepiness to almost unbearable levels. And that’s just how we love it.

  2. I absolutely agree about the atmosphere (I too have always found this film reminiscent of Carnival of Souls), and the visuals are pretty amazing. The scenes in the artist’s house always maximize the oddity of the artwork. Elisha Cook, Jr. does his ‘is he drunk or is he mad?’ thing to great effect with his monologue. But, underneath all that, it’s a pretty conventional zombie plot. I’m not sure I would consider it worthy of apocrypha status.

  3. Having now seen the 4K restoration issued by Radiance, I’m going to revise my earlier comment – this is definitely a very weird film, and one with a lot of layers. I learned from Bill Ackerman’s essay that the portrait on Lang’s wall is of Donald Wayne House, the guy who was arrested because he looked so much like Oswald.

    I don’t know if the limited edition is still available, but the art design is superb, and the film looks gorgeous; although aside from Ackmerman’s, the essays in the booklet are largely worthless.

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