MESSIAH OF EVIL (1974) Review by Steve Kirkham

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MESSIAH OF EVIL (1974)

4 stars
Radiance Films. Blu Ray. 27th November. Cert 15

Messiah of Evil is one of those relatively obscure, little seen, independent horrors from the 70s with a reputation that increases with each passing year as more people discover it – I have to admit it was a gap in my own filmic journey. Handily Radiance Films have brought the film to Blu Ray in a spanking new restoration from a 4k scan of the best surviving elements – and it’s a ravishingly colourful presentation showcasing the use of dominant blues and reds in the imagery.

The film opens with a frightened man running from something or someone – collapsing in front of a young girl, she proceeds to slice his throat open! The victim here is played by one Walter Hill, before he was famous as a writer/director of such filmic fare as The Warriors (1979) and 48 Hrs. (1982).

Following the titles a voiceover from our protagonist Arletty (Marianna Hill), who is incarcerated in an asylum – speaking of Point Dune and what happened to her there. “They say nightmares are dreams perverted”. A good description of the film that follows…

The main story is a flashback, a surreal tale of a small town and the inhabitants there. But is Arletty a reliable narrator or are these the ravings of a madwoman? Does this explains the fractured, fascinatingly weird nature of the unfolding story? She is travelling to the coastal community she spoke of, after the letters from her artist father (Royal Dano) have become increasingly bizarre, as he speaks of some kind of impending doom. Stopping at a gas station to fill up, she gets the first signs of something amiss – the attendant (Charles Dierkop) frantically imploring her to leave after an odd looking tall man (the strikingly strange Bennie Robinson) arrives in his truck.

At her father’s house she finds it abandoned and discovers his journal in one of his sketch books, which is full of agitated entries and grotesque images of horror. Trying to track him down, in the nearby town, she meets Thom (Michael Greer) and his two female companions Laura (Anitra Ford) and Toni (Joy Bang) plus a rambling, somewhat freaky old man (Elisha Cook Jr.). Before long the trio have inveigled their way into her pop’s house. What is happening in the town? Where has her dad disappeared to?

Whilst this is often disjointed and slightly meandering plot wise it has a dreamlike ambience and is never less than hypnotically captivating. There’s a well staged attack by the townsfolk – are they zombies? – in a supermarket and a cinema and it all ends in a bloody finale. It is clear that Night of the Living Dead was a touchstone, though this would sit well with such films as Carnival of Souls (1962) and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971). Made on a shoestring by husband and wife team Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, the fact that some of it’s funding was lost during production may go some way to explaining its fragmented nature – despite this, the movie has a compelling oddness as people bleed from their eyes as if afflicted by some kind of illness that turns them into flesh eating ghouls. And who doesn’t love a rat eating albino!

Shot in 1971 but unreleased for several years, the duo of Huyck and Katz are probably best known for their work for George Lucas including American Graffiti and Howard the Duck. Stephen Katz, Gloria’s brother, was responsible for the Bava-esque lighting and cinematography which adds to the eerie atmosphere.

This release is limited to 2000 copies.

Special Features
3 stars
Audio commentary with Kim Newman and Stephen Thrower; Archival interview with co-writer-director Willard Huyck; Documentary What the Blood Moon Brings: Messiah of Evil, A New American Nightmare; Visual essay on American Gothic and Female Hysteria by critic Kat Ellinger; Booklet featuring writing by Bill Ackerman; Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Time Tomorrow.

Steve Kirkham