Messiah of Evil (1973)
In a 1984 interview in People Weekly, timed for the release of Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom, writer Gloria Katz said of her and Willard Huyck’s 1973 horror film, Messiah of Evil…
It was a real bowwow.
In the same interview, Huyck defending it, saying...
It appeared on a marquee in a Woody Allen film and Film Comment called it “one of the top 10 classic, overlooked horror films of all time.”
The years have been kind to Messiah of Evil, and while it remains somewhat of a cult film, it regularly appears on “best of” lists. For example, it was #95 on IndieWire’s 2018 list of The Greatest Horror Movies of All-Time.
I loved it. It’s a film for which its low budget really works to create a dream-like state. From its opening narration by the main character, Arietty (Marianna Hill), we’re led to believe the whole story could be a nightmare...
They say that nightmares are dreams perverted. I’ve told them it wasn’t a nightmare, but they don’t believe me. They nod and make little notes in my file.
Then, the narration sets an expectation for Messiah of Evil that doesn’t disappoint…
They're coming here. They're waiting at the edge of the city. They're peering around buildings at night, and they're waiting. They’re waiting for you! And they'll take you one by one and no one will hear you scream. No one will hear you scream!
How did Arietty get here? Why is she wandering the long, fluorescent-lit hallway of a mental institution? What drove her to speak this narration through frightened tears?
In terms of film exposition, these answers are simple. Arietty goes to the small beach town of Point Dune to look for her father. She finds an empty house, a crazy old man named Charlie speaking gibberish (Elisha Cook Jr.), and a “collector of old legends” named Thom. We know this is the 1970s because it’s “Thom” with a “Th” and he has not one, but two, female companions, Laura (Anitra Ford) and Toni (Joy Bang.)
In this coastal town with howling in the night and the suggestion that some kind of cult resides in it, I was immediately reminded of The Howling (1981.) It’s not werewolves feasting on raw meat in the grocery store, though; it’s the undead population preparing for the fulfillment of something that began 100 years ago. These plot points aren’t spoilers; Messiah of Evil relies on its mood and atmosphere rather than its screenplay.
However, the dialogue of said screenplay is worth mentioning, both terrifying (“We sit in the sun and wait. We sleep. And we dream. Each of us dying slowly in the prison of our minds.”) and humorous (“Give a girl a pair of shoes and she walks out on you.”) The imagery is vivid, particularly when Charlie says:
I'm as old as the hills. Mama delivered me herself. She took me from between her legs, bloody little mess. She's about to feed me to the chickens. And daddy said, "Maybe we could use a boy, Lottie." That's how I came into the world.
Messiah of Evil is filled with strange details. For example, the town’s art dealer is blind. The albino townie likes to snack on beach rats. And Arietty refuses to identify the dead body on the beach as her father because the body’s hands are “coarse and large.” You see, her father was an artist, which leads to another example of attention to detail: Joseph Lang’s (Royal Dano) studio and his art are both unusual and off putting, just like the town.
There’s a horrifically effective scene in a movie theater that will stick with me for a while, at least until I order the Messiah of Evil Blu-ray. Toni takes a break by going to a movie (Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye… mmm...hmm.) She sits in a nearly empty theater, but as the trailers play, people slowly sit in the seats behind her, practically filling the auditorium. It reminds me of a few birds at a time resting on a jungle gym at the park in The Birds, but actually ends worse for Toni.
Evoking Night of the Living Dead, Messiah of Evil is a masterpiece all its own. Like Carnival of Souls before it, the film submerges its viewers into a nightmare, whether literal or figurative. I don’t know how they feel about it today, but I think Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz would be more apologetic about another one of their films that came 13 years later: Howard the Duck.
Written by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz
Directed by Willard Huyck
Starring Michael Greer, Marianna Hill, Joy Bang, Anitra Ford, Royal Dano, Elisha Cook Jr.
RT 90 min.
Released May 12, 1973
Home Video Code Red (Blu-ray)
McNeil Jr., Donald, Gloria Katz & Willard Huyck's Best Defense Against Critics is Their Screenwriting Track
August 20, 1984, United States, Meredith Corporation
Various, The Greatest Horror Movies of All-Time
October 23, 2018