Sunday, October 12, 2008
MESSIAH OF EVIL has to be one of the best-kept secrets of early 70s horror, a film which probably has a small cult around it like those secrets usually do, but it still deserves to be better known. The Silent Movie Theatre showed it the other night, one of the many horror films they’re showing all through the month of October. The place was surprisingly crowded. Were they curious to see an early work from the team of Willard Hyuck & Gloria Katz, screenwriters on AMERICAN GRAFFITTI and INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (plus uncredited work on STAR WARS)? Had they, as I had, been told about it by friends of theirs? Had some of them seen it before and were bringing others? Is the Silent Movie just doing really good business lately? Some of MESSIAH OF EVIL is clumsy, as you’d expect from a first-time director making a low budget genre picture in the early 70s. The pacing is sometimes off, the acting is inconsistent, the story feels incomplete particularly in the ending and some of it is pretty goofy—yes, there was laughter at certain points. But the entire film maintains a genuine feel of a waking nightmare throughout, something that the beat up nature of the 35mm Scope print (titled DEAD PEOPLE) we viewed actually added to. It also contains a few sequences so effective that the film becomes impossible to ever dismiss. Not in a ‘they actually pulled this off for the money they spent’ way, but in a genuinely cinematic way that made me sit there thinking, “This is amazing…THIS IS AMAZING.”
Searching for her father, Arletty (Marianne Hill, Deanna Dunn in THE GODFATHER PART II) travels to his home in Point Dume, where she finds a strangely empty house. Asking around town does little good, but it does lead her to the odd trio of Thom (Michael Greer), Laura (Anitra Ford) and Toni (Joy Bang), a presumed threesome who soon let themselves into the house to stay with Arletty but none of them have any idea what is really going on within the town.
It’s an interesting film to view just a few days after watching LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, another story that features a woman entering a strange town, strange behavior by the locals, narration which always seems elusive, visitors of a mysterious nature—even the recurring sound of blowing wind to add atmosphere when there’s not much there onscreen. JESSICA might be more polished but that doesn’t discount what Hyuck & Katz achieved here. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is no doubt a key influence (CARNIVAL OF SOULS probably is to) but some of the imagery actually anticipates certain zombie films that had yet to be made—but can this be considered a zombie film? Shot composition throughout makes imaginative use of the Scope frame, lending a true sense of style to the micro-budget production—how the guy who made this also directed BEST DEFENSE (not to mention HOWARD THE DUCK) will probably always remain a mystery. Even the father’s house, which has unusual three-dimensional works of art throughout, has a creepy feel to it as soon as we enter. There’s a strange vibe all through MESSIAH that is difficult to put into words and very little is ever explained. What is really going on in this town? What do the flashbacks really explain? Who are these three people Arletty hooks up with? In most other films, the three would be responsible for whatever happens to the lead (maybe it’s the counterculture nature of Hyuck & Katz that makes the dropouts the normal ones and the small town citizens the ones we really need to fear) but this film surprisingly never goes that route. At least, I think it doesn’t. Certain things are still left ambiguous when the credits roll, a true willingness to stick to nightmare logic which is admirable.
But that’s nothing compared to the most vivid passages—one, which follows Anitra Ford from a creepy truck ride with a creepy albino into a Ralph’s supermarket which isn’t as deserted as it first appears, is very good. Another, as Joy Bang (also seen around this time in PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM and CISCO PIKE) goes to the movies in a huge, nearly deserted theater (playing a nonexistent film called KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE—Rated GP) is even better. The sequence does a masterful job of cutting as the theater goes from nearly empty and gradually fills up, all behind the girl, with her not noticing until too late. Yes, there was occasional laughter from the audience at the Silent Movie at points during the film, but not here. It is so successful at building the tension to such a pitch and then paying it off that when it was over I felt so astonished by what I had just seen that I had to applaud the film for it. Others joined in as well. I almost felt like I could have left at that point since I didn’t expect that true feeling of a living nightmare to be topped. It wasn’t, but the movie does keep up its tone of dread fairly well, particularly when things begin to go to hell in the town. The ending feels incomplete, like all the footage was never shot, but even that adds to that unreal feel which continues until the very end.
Willard Hyuck and Gloria Katz appeared after the movie for a Q&A to try to shed some light on things. Hyuck made it a point to mention that this was one of the strangest days of his life since in the morning a crew had come to his house to interview him for the upcoming HOWARD THE DUCK DVD and only hours later he was at the Silent Movie to talk about MESSIAH OF EVIL. The husband and wife team told about how the story was influenced by Lovecraft. The film was financed by “Rich kids in Texas” and the money pretty much went away with just a few days of shooting left. The finished film was recut without their involvement and though they didn’t get into too many specifics about what was changed, that’s when the awful main title song (seriously, it’s really bad) was tacked on. Interestingly, the film shown onscreen during the movie theater sequence, a Sammy Davis Jr. western called GONE WITH THE WEST, was put in there by the producers, replacing an old print of THE BAND WAGON that Hyuck & Katz had made use (how would they ever have gotten permission?). I’ve never heard of GONE WITH THE WEST, but the use of it actually works great here, being loud, obnoxious and seemingly never-ending. It genuinely comes off as a trailer from hell, to use the name of that website. Also discussed were the striking two-and-three dimensional paintings used throughout the house and how they essentially stole that concept for a scene in TEMPLE OF DOOM (Hyuck at one point went off on a tangent about STAR WARS, indicating that they had more to do with that script than I was previously aware of). Katz also added that the Walter Hill and Bill Norton listed in the credits are indeed director Hill and CISCO PIKE helmer B.W.L. Norton. Hill is featured in the pre-credit sequence and Norton turns up in a key flashback late in the film. She also lamented how the film, shot in Techniscope, was processed at Technicolor and that we weren’t able to see it looking at its best—but truthfully, for me, it was better than not seeing it at all.
It’s entirely possible that the flaws in MESSIAH OF EVIL will come to the forefront if I ever see it again. Maybe its best moments make me forget that the complete film might not be totally successful—certainly not like how LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH is. But right now those moments are what I’ve been remembering. Some of these scenes can be found on Youtube and they probably do work pretty well isolated, but when viewed in context they became valuable pieces of a film that, to me, deserves any attention it gets. You may not ever get a chance to see a 35mm print of MESSIAH OF EVIL. But if that opportunity ever arises, make sure to cancel all other plans and do it.