It's been a while since I sang the praises of Mill Creek's 50 Chilling Classics set, but the time has come to do so once more. I've said it before and I'll say it again--the best $20 I've ever spent for which I got a receipt.
Of course whenever you're buying your movies in bulk you're going to end up with a high crap-to-gold ratio, but the 50CC set keeps that ratio admirably close to the 1:1 mark. Not only that, but the goldiness of the gold is so much greater than the crappiness of the crap, it ends up as much more than a net win--it's a treasure.
Really, I'm not kidding. Go buy one now.
But even if the ratio were more like 5:1 on the crap side, the set would have still been worth double the price for introducing me to this wonderfully creepy and astonishingly overlooked fright flick from 1973, Willard Huyck's Messiah of Evil (aka Dead People). A movie that for my money does almost everything right, Messiah of Evil combines slow-build suspense, Lovecraftian story elements, and go-for-the-throat set pieces to deliver a tale that always leaves the Vicar smiling, satisfied, and more than a little creeped-out.
I'll be the first to admit the movie stumbles coming out of the gates: a blandly handsome young man runs down a shadowy street, from who or what we can't see. As he stops to catch his breath, a young girl beckons to him from a hidden courtyard. He goes in and drinks from a fountain before collapsing on the ground. The girl kneels over him, offers her hand to kiss--and then pulls out a straight razor and slits his throat!
Which by itself is not a bad scene...except that it has absolutely NOTHING to do with the movie it introduces. Neither character is spoken of again, the girl's method of killing is unlike that of the film's baddies--hell, even the location looks completely unlike anything else in the film. It really serves no purpose except to open with a shock, which it gains by sacrificing storytelling integrity.
(Still, the wonderfully overblown theme song that plays over the scene almost redeems it: "I gave my message to the wind,/ I told my story to the sea--/ NObody else...is listening...to meeee..../ HOLD OOOOOOON TO LOOOOOOOOVE!")
we stand at the end of a long corridor, the far end of which is lost in the glare of harsh sunlight. Slowly a shadowy figure emerges from the gleam, a woman weaving erratically as she draws ever nearer. In voice-over she tells us the basics of her situation, her voice starting in a whisper and building at last to a mad wail:
"They say that nightmares are dreams perverted. I told them here it wasn't a nightmare--but they don't believe me. They nod, and make little notes in my file...But there's so little time left! You've GOT to listen!See? A woman everyone thinks is crazy, who's gone through some horrific experience, and the fate of the world depends on her convincing the viewer to believe her incredible tale? THAT'S the way you should have opened the movie! (Though admittedly, following that awesome speech with "HOOOLD OOOON TO LOOOOVE!" might have undercut the effect.)
"Not far from here there's a small town on the coast--they used to call it New Bethlehem, but they changed the name to Point Dune, after the moon turned blood red...Point Dune doesn't look any different than a thousand other neon-stucco towns--but what they did to me...what they're doing now...
They're coming here...they're waiting to pierce 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!"
"Arletty" (Marianna Hill), traveling to Point Dune in search of her father. Pops is a moderately famous artist who moved to Point Dune to paint; he often wrote Arletty letters, and over time the missives got more and more bizarre and finally stopped altogether. In his last letter, Dad told her not to come looking for him, lest his terrible fate ensnare her too--so naturally, off she goes!
Huyck wastes no time piling on the creepiness, even before Arletty gets into Point Dune proper. She stops at a gas station on the outskirts of town and finds the attendant emptying his revolver into the dark field behind the garage. He explains that he's shooting at stray dogs, a claim immediately undercut by unidentifiable but still scary animal noises echoing through the darkness. "Doesn't sound like dogs," Arletty observes. "HAS to be," the attendant replies. "Has to be dogs! I've hunted out in them woods--nothing but rabbits and quail. Rabbits don't make that sound!" When their transaction is interrupted by the appearance of the SCARIEST ALBINO EVAR in a pickup truck with a strange cargo, the attendant advises her to leave, even without paying. "Just GET OUT!" he whispers...and soon enough, we find out why.
The sound of wind and waves drowns out all else as she explores the deserted studio, which is decorated with unsettling paintings of pale men and women on every wall, a taxidermied dog frozen in mid-snarl, and an awesome bed suspended on chains from the ceiling! (I'm TOTALLY getting one of these when I remodel the Vicarage.) In short order she finds her father's sketchbooks and diaries, and we get to hear the old man (also in voice-over) telling about his strange experiences in Point Dune:
"The visions are coming from areas of my mind that I don't understand...these grotesque images keep crowding in on me...At night I find myself wandering through the town...catching glimpses of horrid animals I know can't be real...Women with pale faces and shadowy figures, staring out at the black water..."
Students of literature will immediately recognize this as a classic Lovecraftian story set-up, in more the "uncanny happenings and unimaginable creatures revealing unendurable truths" way than the "OMG AN OCTOPUS-FACED MONSTER" way. It's very well done, and the writing for the old man and Arletty's speeches will give you the campfire-story chills if you're not made of stone.
The next day Arletty goes to an art gallery in Point Dune, run by an art dealer who just happens to be blind! Through her smarmy/creepy interpreter-son, the old woman does her best to make Arletty unwelcome, denigrating her father's work and advising her to leave town. But when the son lets slip that some other strangers had come in that morning asking about her dad, Arletty heads to the Seven Seas Hotel to follow up her only lead.
At the hotel, Arletty finds the strangers--dapper folklore hobbyist Thom (Michael Greer) and his two traveling companions, exotic dark-haired beauty Laura (Invasion of the Bee Girls' Anitra Ford) and petulant, childlike blonde Toni (played by the all-time "I can't believe you didn't take a stage name" winner, JOY BANG). The groovy trio invite Arletty in to listen to an homeless wino Thom has befriended in order to learn more about the history of the town, Old Charlie--portrayed by the legendary God of Character Actors, Elisha Cook Jr.! He's only in the movie for around five minutes, but Elisha makes all of them count, laying out the terrifying legend of the Blood Moon, a supernatural occurence that had strange, horrifying effects on the populace:
"My daddy called it the Blood Moon...he said that was the night he lost religion. Folks started bleedin', out of control...they found babies, little children eating raw meat! It was like the redder the moon got up there...the more people were bein' jerked toward Hell!"
Thom pays Charlie in booze for his story, and explains to Arletty that they saw her dad's paintings in the gallery that morning--"In fact, it was a portrait of you!"--and asked about him, after which the dealer must have removed them, since Arletty saw no such painting. Unsatisfied, Arletty leaves only to be stopped by Old Charlie in the alley. Elisha Cook Jr. shows why he had nearly 200 films to his credit by the time he checked out, out-crazying even Crazy Ralph with his warning:
"If you love your daddy...you have to kill him! You have to! You...you can't bury him--don't put him in the ground! You've got to burn him! You gotta put fire to his body!"
Later that night Thom and the girls show up at Arletty's dad's pad, having been thrown out by the manager after Old Charlie turned up dead in the alley. Inviting themselves to stay, the oddly-mannered menage a trois moves in, and before long all four of them are suffering the strange effects of the Point Dune air, not to mention the unwelcome attentions of its nocturnal residents...
What I would like to talk about a little are a few of those artful touches that really enhanced my enjoyment of the film, one of them being the use of sound. This was made in the days before surround sound, obviously, but that doesn't stop Huyck from making the most of the aural as well as the visual. The score is minimalist and synth-based, largely eschewing songs and recurrent musical themes for discordant, disconcerting swells and vaguely sci-fi ambient noise that are much more effective than an orchestral score probably could be. More than that, though, the near-constant sound of wind and waves in the background gives the whole film a mournful, lonely sonic backdrop, against which scenes of Arletty wandering through her father's abandoned studio or Thom walking the deserted streets of Point Dune after dark play out with spooky, ghost-town gloom. In the few scenes where the wind-and-wave track ins not present--as in the standout Grocery Store Scene where the hapless Laura is introduced to Point Dune's nocturnal residents--the silence becomes uncanny, with a thematic and emotional weight it would otherwise lack.
The visuals Huyck is able to achieve are often striking as well, despite the sometimes garish lighting and unfortunate beat-up condition of every print I've ever seen of the film. Several times in the film we get long, wide-angle crane shots showing one of our protagonists as a tiny figure in an ominously empty landscape, which emphasizes both the strange emptiness of the town and the character's vulnerability, out in the open with no place to hide. And again, the incessant sound of the wind and waves amplifies this effect by a full factor.
dead bodies, mounted so their eyes are always focused on the center of the room where the living go about their business. As rad as that chain-suspended bed is, I doubt I'd be able to get much sleep on it. And don't even talk to me about settling in for a nice warm bath.
Because much of the film focuses on slow discovery and events unfolding in uncanny relative silence, when that hush is disturbed by scenes of horrifying action, once again it packs an amplified wallop. The exits of Thom's two traveling companions are definitely the standout scenes here, the aforementioned grocery store discovery trumped by Toni's ill-fated visit to the local cinema. It's really an awesomely built-up scene, as the initially empty rows behind Toni slowly fill up with Point Dune's strangely silent residents, turning the tension screws until finally it all breaks loose in a truly frightening way.
The performances here are mostly good--Mariana Hill is effective as Arletty, particularly when the strange effects of the approaching Blood Moon start to show. Michael Greer as Thom is coolly deadpan and weirdly appealing; Anitra Ford adds some nice depth to her sultry, spurned lover character, and Joy Bang as Toni is also good at portraying her character's wild-child naivete. Memorable cameos by Elisha Cook Jr. and his fellow character-actor veteran Royal Dano lend a certain gravitas, and whoever played the Ominous Albino--my friend, welcome to my nightmares. You've earned your place.
CREEPY AS FUCK, Messiah of Evil easily merits the coveted 3+ thumb rating. Find yourself a copy--and stay off the beaches at night. You won't like what you find out there.