Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Messiah of Evil (1973): or, He'll Be Comin' From the Ocean When He Comes

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!")

While you're waiting for the REAL film to start, how about a nice game of solitaire?

The choice of opening becomes even more perplexing once the credits have rolled, since it's followed by ANOTHER introductory scene, this one much more germane and a hundred times more effective. In this one 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!

"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!"
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.)

That's More Like It

The voice-over continues as we flash back and find our narrator, a young woman by the improbable name of "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.

I don't think it's racist to admit I'm terrified of this guy.

Oblivious to the attendant's fate, Arletty soon arrives at her father's house, a lighthouse-looking bungalow on the beach. 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...

Thom's aristocratic suavery makes the detective hang his head in shame.

And you know what? That's all I'm going to say about the plot of the movie. This is one of those films where the story is so good, and it's presented in such an artful way, it should really be experienced as freshly as possible. Of course knowing what happens didn't dampen my enjoyment of the movie the second time I watched it...or the third, or fourth--because director Huyck does a lot of things that stand up for appreciation on subsequent viewings. Just go find yourself a copy--it's available on public domain sets like 50 Chilling Classics, and available to watch or download online pretty much all over the place. So do it--you really have no excuse, and you'll thank me. BELIEVE IT.

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.

Anitra Ford: Messiah of Hawtness

Other design choices also pay dividends--for instance, Arletty's father's studio is one of the creepier sets it's been my pleasure to witness, with the aforementioned odd paintings of pale human figures lining the walls--they look like 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.

For some reason, Joy didn't find her bubble bath all that relaxing.

Overall, I've got very little bad to say about this movie. Even things that ordinarily bother me in films--such as the heavy dependence on the voice-over, which I often feel is a sign of lazy filmmaking--here are made to work in chilling, wonderful ways. (The excellent creepy writing of the narration certainly doesn't hurt.) It's a real crime that no one has picked this flick up and given it the special edition, features-laden treatment it so richly deserves. Entertaining, artful, literate and above all 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.


Miss Kolleen said...

one of my favorites!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Richard of DM said...

I love this movie more than life itself. One of the greatest American horror films of the 70s. This needs to be rescued from its criminally obscure status.

Mr. Karswell said...

Absolutely one of the best, most underated horror films ever. No one has an excuse to miss it when you can buy it so cheap on dvd or watch it for free online.

It almost made the b-sol top 10 list but during the narrowing down phase it was sadly one of the titles to drop off. How about a top 11 list? It's on there!!

Unknown said...

I also caught this film as part of the Mill Creek Ent. box set--a very underrated flick--I thoroughly enjoyed it. The grocery store and movie theater scenes alone are woth the price of the whole box set. Great review, I don't think I've ever seen anybody go so deep into this film.

Anonymous said...

This is also one of my favorites! Great review! I think I have watched this movie almost as much as I have watched Dawn of the Dead - it's number 2 on my favorite flicks list.

One more thing - the film has one of the best lines ever - "You don't just unzip a man and then say goodnight."


The Vicar of VHS said...

Glad to see this movie has so many rabid fans! I mean besides me, of course.

It's really a shame no one has picked this one up, cleaned up the print, and thrown some extras together to present it to a wider audience. If anybody knows someone in the DVD distro business, put a bug in their ear! Or on their tongue, as the case may be...

And for those of you who haven't seen it yet, here's your free ticket courtesy Archive.org (link swiped from Vicar-buddy Karswell's excellent site, The Horrors of It All!, which you should also visit at your earliest opportunity).

And Absinthe--this movie has so many great lines, and the writing is so superb, it's hard for me to pick a favorite quote! That one's right up there, though. That Thom...you know the only reason he BOUGHT that side-zippered vest was so that he could use that line. ;)

Keith said...

I love this movie. It's one of my favorites too. This is a good set. I love buying sets like this. You can often get some real gems.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Thanks for stopping by, Keith! If you click on the "50 Chilling Classics" label at the bottom of this review, you'll see I've found a higher-than-normal percentage of gems with this particular set--among them Silent Night, Bloody Night, Lady Frankenstein, and the EXCELLENT and similarly obscure The Bell from Hell--any one of which would be worth your $20.

Mr. Karswell said...

Has anyone noticed a difference in the prints from the mega multi pack version vs the Synergy release of Bell from Hell? This is another one of my all time favorite films. A truly original, very underated film.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Karswell--I've only seen the 50 CC version of Bell from Hell, and I know that on that one the sound is a problem--I had to really crank it to be able to hear what was going on. That's another one that needs an SE, imo. Great flick.

micha michelle said...

this is one of my absolute favorites. i have to agree with absinthe about the zipper vest line. the fact that a zipper vest like that even exists, makes me laugh.

i'm a big fan of the Mill Creek 50 packs. the Bell from Hell is another one that makes the chilling pack purchase worth while. it film has been released by Pathfinder, but according to an amazon review it still has editing/sound problems + missing footage.

another reviewer said the Lions Gate DVD version was good, but i haven't been unable to find it. i suppose anything could be better than the Mill Creek version. i do believe netflix has the Pathfinder version of the Bell from Hell. i just haven't had a chance to check it out yet.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Thanks for commenting, micha mae!

I didn't even know Lions Gate had put out a version of the movie. Tenebrous Kate recently reviewed Bell from Hell and the screengrabs look much better than mine from the Mill Creek version. We need to put together a list of Undiscovered Masterpieces That Should Have Super Special Editions and start petitioning the DVD companies. I'm sure *somebody* will listen!

Greg said...


According to Code Red DVD's blog, they will release this gem sometime this year. I love this film, it has a seriously skewed atmosphere. The DVD will be letterboxed, and the print cleaned up! Thanks for reviewing this!

The Vicar of VHS said...

Hey, Greg--that *is* great news! I know I'll be snapping it up when it comes out! Thanks for the tip, and thanks for reading! :)

Andy Manilow said...

Hey gang....this movie was great content for this haunting song:


Nine-Fingered Menace said...

I first found this gem in a store that sold used VHS. A few years back Code Red came out with a special edition, full works, and I snapped up a copy as soon as I could get my grubby little paws on it. It's actually better than the VHS or mass-movie collection version, because you also get to better appreciate the use of color. I showed this one to a friend, and a month or two later she told me she was still freaked out by it.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Thanks, NFM! It really is an underappreciated flick.

Henry Wolfsburg said...

Great review of one of my favorite early 70's movies of all time. Marianna Hill. Messiah of Evil

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