Saturday Nightmares: Messiah of Evil (1971)
One of the defining characteristics of 70s horror is the thick and pervasive atmosphere that distinguishes them amongst their peers. Films like Let’s Scare Jessica to Death and Phantasm invoke such strong, yet unique, impressions that it’s impossible to find others exactly like them. And that’s true of Messiah of Evil as well – an impossibly odd little effort filmed in 1971 by future George Lucas collaborators Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz.
The story brings a young woman to the small artist’s cove of Pointe Dune, CA to locate her missing father. His abandoned shore house, decorated floor-to-ceiling with the most eerily mundane murals imaginable, reveals maddening journals that chronicle the increasingly strange behavior of the town’s inhabitants. Meanwhile, a mass of people gather nightly on the beach beside roaring fires as if expecting the arrival of someone, or something and the rest of the town seems to be withering on the proverbial vine.
Unfolding like a cross between Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls and Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm, Messiah’s strengths do not reside in those of a typical narrative. The story unfolds at a sluggish pace and leaves more than its fair share of questions in the viewer’s lap upon conclusion. We’re never entirely sure how much of the story was real (if any of it), and the fate of at least one major character is left entirely up in the air. And yet, it doesn’t matter. There’s a dreamlike quality evident from the first frame that somehow establishes the proper viewer expectation; even on the first trip to Pointe Dune, the filmmakers make it clear that the ‘real’ world doesn’t exist here. Instead, Messiah of Evil fluctuates between a reality consisting of fragmented dreams and startling nightmares.
And this endless barrage of surrealism paves the way for several moments of almost unrivaled spookiness. From the bizarre opening murder sequence (one of the earliest examples of a genre convention being flipped onto its ear) to the intimidating presence of a hulking albino with a penchant for live mice and eyeless corpses, this one imposes a sustained sense of dread that never leaves. Instead, it intensifies into several moments that, while not exactly terrifying, go almost unparalleled among the horror genre’s creepiest bits. Once seen, the set piece involving an empty movie theater is very hard to shake.
Interestingly, Messiah of Evil plays out in many ways like a loose adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, at least in that they both concern a sleepy seaside community and their coastal worship of a mysterious deity. But there are also parallels between the main characters and the maddening revelations they come to discover about themselves. The film, though, draws more from Christianity than Lovecraft’s pagan mythos, particularly in that the antagonist is imbued with motivations and qualities that place him more in line with the Bible’s devil than any other tempestuous force. Considering the Messiah title, however, that’s to be expected. It also succeeds in peppering the film with streak of dark humor once it’s considered that the haven of the devil lies within a community of artists, hippies and freethinkers.
Despite the obvious low budget, Director Huyck manages some truly visceral - and equally nonsensical – moments that would make any Italian horror director proud. During the climactic chase, several creatures are showcased crashing through a large skylight in an attempt to reach our protagonist and the endless stream of smashing glass is a jarring aesthetic in what’s already a suspenseful sequence. Moments such as this separate Messiah as something a bit more stylish and powerful than many genre films released at the same time. It’s true that its primary attribute lies in its ability to sneak beneath your skin and fester there, but it’s also not without the power to scare.
It’s difficult to determine why this effective horror film vanished into obscurity although, considering the modern trend of remaking anything and everything, it is perhaps a blessing in disguise. Pointe Dune isn’t a place that would be worth revisiting in a different guise as the secret to its success lies within a formula that isn’t easily replicated today: slow burn atmosphere and a complete and total lack of easy, expository answers. Instead, Messiah of Evil remains a one-of-a-kind genre experience that has garnered a small but passionate band of followers in the thirty-six plus years since its release. Obtuse and awkward, but plenty spooky, this lost masterpiece deserves to be discovered.
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