Cult Cinema: Messiah of Evil

For his first review with The Movie Sleuth, Chris Jordan reviews Messiah of Evil.

1973's Messiah of Evil is that rarest, most sought-after but seldom found type of movie: a truly unique and original, absolutely one-of-a-kind horror film. It's the sort of undiscovered gem that connoisseurs of the genre long to find, yet it remains bafflingly obscure. It's almost unfair to simply call it a horror movie; it's something much more unusual than that. A poetic and haunting journey into nightmares, or an unlikely hybrid of Federico Fellini and H.P. Lovecraft, Messiah of Evil is a film that pushes the artistic boundaries of its genre in a way that few American horror films ever attempt, and all on an incredibly low budget. It is a film that demands rediscovery.

"Has anyone seen my popcorn? It's kinda dark in here."

 On the surface, Messiah of Evil is about a small seaside town which has been overtaken by some sort of evil force that turns its inhabitants into pale, flesh-eating creatures somewhere between vampires and zombies. But that's just on the surface. Really, this is a film about the oppressive, individuality-crushing nature of suburban small-town America, and the dark undertones of hopelessness, panic, and unease lurking below the nostalgia-induced facade of Americana. The villain in the film is the town itself, and the zombies are just what its inhabitants have allowed themselves to become by embracing its lifestyle. The protagonist is a young woman who has come to the town to find her artist father, whose letters to her have become increasingly panicked and ominous. It appears that he has become the victim of a Love-craftian force which is reaching out from the sea and taking control over the entire population; but then again, it's equally possible that there's just no room for a unique, artistic personality in this forcibly-ordinary vision of small-town perfection.

It's somewhat ironic that Messiah of Evil was written, directed, and produced by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, the husband and wife filmmaker duo who – that same year – scored a massive mainstream hit with their screenplay American Graffiti. Messiah is the absolute antithesis of that film: if American Graffiti is all about nostalgic remembrances of growing up in a small suburban town, Messiah of Evil is the nightmare about the parts of that childhood that scarred you, and made you want to leave that town as soon as you could. Both films use similar images of Americana, but to vastly different effects: in Messiah of Evil, classic sights like a shiny new supermarket and a main-street movie theater become oppressive chambers of horror, shot from off-kilter angles that make them seem very unsettling and somehow wrong. A memorable scene in which the zombie-like creatures prowl the supermarket is every bit as subversive a social commentary as anything in Dawn of the Dead, and almost more effective because it's played for serious dread rather than dark humor.

"Okay, Who brought the LSD?"

 Katz and Huyck have excellent eyes for eerie visuals, and a flawless sense for crafting atmosphere, both of which allow the film to pack a real punch despite its limited production resources. As the two filmmakers reveal in the making-of documentary on Code Red's excellent special edition DVD, the film's style was influenced not by other horror films – indeed, they say they don't particularly like horror films – but by European art cinema. When they were given the opportunity to make a horror movie for the drive-in circuit, they saw the possibilities in making a Fellini-esque nightmare which also fit into American drive-in horror criteria. Nowhere is this ambition more evident than in the film's excellent 2.35:1 cinematography, which uses every inch of the widescreen frame in its wonderfully haunting shot compositions. Many of these compositions make use of the huge, eerie murals that the main character's artist father painted all over the walls of his home and studio. By framing the actors against the paintings, Huyck and Katz further add to the film's feeling of dreamy unreality. Be warned: this film is in the public domain, so there are a lot of 4x3 pan-and-scanned VHS rips of it floating around, which are to be avoided if at all possible. This is a film which must be seen in its intended aspect ratio in order to fully appreciate the filmmakers' vision.

To see this film as it truly should be seen – with a gorgeously restored anamorphic widescreen picture, and supplemented with some great bonus features – the Code Red special edition is the only way to go. For the disc, the movie was remastered from one of just a couple known surviving theatrical prints, as the original negatives are believed to have been destroyed long ago. Given the circumstances, it's remarkable what an amazing job the restoration team – supervised by co-director/writer/producer Huyck – did: there are still some inevitable imperfections due to the nature of the source (mostly just the occasional scratch on the print that they couldn't fix), but for the most part it looks beautiful, with rich colors, sharp details, and an all around shockingly high level of quality for a theatrical print of a low-budget drive-in flick from the early-70s. It's very lucky that Code Red was able to find such a high-quality print to work from: since the negatives are presumably gone forever, the widescreen version of the film could have easily been lost to time if the surviving prints had been in unusably bad shape. Unfortunately this Code Red DVD is out of print, but it hasn't gotten too rare or expensive yet, so I suggest that you grab it while you still can for a reasonable

"Someone let me out. It's like Wal-Mart in here! Full....of....evil...."

Somehow Messiah of Evil has managed to stay under the radar for all these years, never really growing into the cult classic that it deserves to be. Nonetheless, anyone who loves both horror and art-house films should consider it essential viewing, and seek out the widescreen DVD while there is still a chance. Part Lovecraft-infused zombie movie, part American existential nightmare, part Fellini homage wrapped up in drive-in trappings, this has got to be one of the most interesting horror films that the 1970s – or any decade – ever produced.

-Christopher S Jordan