US | 1973 | Directed by Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz
Logline: When a woman arrives at her missing father’s home she discovers the township is governed by a mysterious supernatural cult.
Arletty (Marianna Hill) narrates her quest to find her missing father. She arrives in the eerie Californian coastal town of Point Dune. A prologue suggests she ends up in a mental institution, so her narration will prove unreliable. She settles in to her father’s deserted beach mansion filled with his surreal and unsettling paintings, many of which are giant staring faces and clusters of figures on the walls.
The locals are hollow and weird. It seems a supernatural force has infected the town, gradually turning its occupants into zombies. They are the undead, but not the familiar Romero kind. Yes, they do crave raw meat and are in a slow state of decay, but they also manage to operate in a vaguely normal fashion, such as driving vehicles, and converse with strangers.
Arletty reads her father’s abandoned diary and learns of his increasing unease, and later meets Thom (Michael Greer), a dapper sleaze, and his two female companions (lovers), the striking, feline Laura (Anitra Ford) and the boyish, child-woman Toni (Joy Bang). They are drifters, also intrigued by the town’s history, and plant themselves at Arletty’s father’s pad, much to Arletty’s bemusement.
Events take a turn for the seriously weird, and soon the town’s dark and diabolical affliction is revealed, with its hordes and apocalyptic curse.
It’s all hallucinogenic, phantasmogorical hokum, but Huyck and Katz pull it off with their intensely atmospheric and dream-like logic, a fusion of the Euro stylistics of Argento’s supernatural indulgences, but also Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg’s Performance, with its multi-layered use of symbolism (religious cultism, sexual role-playing, identity and disguise, socio-politics, artistic expression) and a brooding sensuality. Indeed the movie looks and feels much more like a European film than an American one. Even the lead actors look foreign!
There’s ripe dialogue scattered throughout (curious to note Huyck and Katz would later do uncredited dialogue doctoring on the original Star Wars); Thom casually muttering “Give a girl a pair of shoes and she walks out on you”, Arletty’s opening spiel, “They say nightmares are dreams perverted …”
Performances are all assured with excellent casting of the leads and some intriguing support; the albino trucker (Bennie Robinson) is particularly unnerving, while Elisha Cook’s town drunkard is suitably amusing. Most striking of all is Stephen Katz’s saturated cinematography, Jack Fisk’s art direction (curiously he was the Man in the Planet in Lynch’s Eraserhead) and the mise-en-scene of rolling surf, luna in the night sky, empty streets and buildings, a cinema marquee - Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, and one especially striking sequence where Arletty first descends down into her father’s studio where a massive jetty mural fills the wall. The succession of images, combined with the spare, haunting electronic score, courtesy of Phillian Bishop, is genuinely creepy.
Originally titled The Second Coming (and also known as Dead People), apparently the abrupt ending was a result of Huyck and Katz running out of funds, being rushed into completion, and subsequently not being able to shoot the ending they had envisioned, which would tie the events into the return of a Dark Stranger. Subsequently, the real madness seems to lie in Arletty’s mind. Is the whole story a figment of her crazed imagination?
Messiah of Evil is an elusive, low-budget art-horror delight, dabbling in abstract imagery and furtive ideas, meandering down strange avenues, staring off into the dark surf and up into a blood-red moon.