Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Messiah of Horror Collections

Whether they're made by Millcreek, Echobridge, Image Entertainment or some other manufacturer, the multi-movie DVD horror collections are very addictive. Much like a Whitman sampler, there are a variety of tasty treats contained therein including some classics, old favorites and the familiar filler. There's also some odd unknowns that could turn out to be gag-inducing, or possibly, a mouthwatering new discovery. That's what makes these multi-packs fun, biting into a previously unknown morsel and being surprised by its content. And just like the chocolate sampler, there's a tendency to not want to leave anything un-consumed, even if it has been pre-judged unpalatable.

Continuing with the food metaphor (I really need to eat dinner), I'm tearing through this Image 50-movie horror pack like Kobayashi eating hot dogs when I see Messiah of Evil pop up on the menu as the next movie. Now there are only two things I previously knew about this movie - it was made in the 70's, and secondly, I remembered this cover from an old twofer DVD release:

So to my mind, it's clearly some kind of devil cult movie, of which there were about a ka-billion made in the 70's because of Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist and The Omen. Now I don't dislike this type of movie, as much as I'm just totally burnt out on them having been cinematically subjected to the dark lord and his ilk all throughout the disco decade. It's the same feeling I have about The Bee Gees, don't hate 'em, just wouldn't be disappointed if I never heard Staying Alive again. I could have just skipped the movie, but the OCD completist in me wasn't about to let that happen. So reluctantly, and with little enthusiasm, I started watching. But when I saw Walter Hill immediately get attacked by a little girl with a straight razor in the first scene, I was all in.

Synopsis - A young woman travels to the coastal town of Point Dune to find her father and discovers  strange goings on.

This is the rarest of horror films that combines atmosphere, art, imagery and scary set pieces to form a very effective nightmare. With its odd townspeople and strange atmosphere, Messiah of Evil initially brings to mind films like Dead and Buried, Let's Scare Jessica to Death, Lenzi's Nightmare City and Fulci's City of the Living Dead. Despite being shot exclusively in southern California, the film also has a distinctly European feel to it aided in large part by the very cool art work that's scattered around the beach house where the bulk of the movie is shot. This art work not only works aesthetically to create a spooky, omnipresent group of "watchers", but also feeds into the plot and theme of the film. Even a casual conversation by two of the female characters in the bathroom takes on a unique look and feel with these silent, waiting companions.

The house and it's accompanying art work are so visual interesting and distinctive, that I feared the film would lose some of its power when changing to another location. But the filmmakers provide a sense of paranoia, dread and outright weirdness by a variety of methods at a number of locations. The "Point Dune" name, which we learn was formerly "New Bethlehem", sounds uncomfortably close to 'Point Doom'. The movie theater's marquee displays a now-showing title of Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. The town often appears deserted and dreamlike at night as some of the residents are seen gathered together in an almost trance-like state at the beach, in the back of a pick-up truck, the local Ralph's supermarket or some other location. And then there's this guy...

...who first shows up at a nearby Mobile station to obtain $2 worth of "no-knock", and freak me the f out in the process. I haven't seen every movie ever made, but I'm willing to bet he is the only lazy-eyed, Wagner-loving, mouse munching, albino character in cinema history. He's played by Bennie Robinson who only appeared in this movie, but should have become a horror staple right up there with Michael Berryman and Reggie Nalder. Another actor that does show up briefly to add to the atmosphere and supply some foreshadowing is the always cool and crazy Elisha Cook Jr.

The lead character of the daughter, Arletti,  is played by Marianna Hill who will be easily recognizable to anyone who watched a lot of 60's television. She did a multitude of guest spots on everything from The Outer Limits and Star Trek to Gunsmoke and Dobie Gillis. Although her acting is easily the best out of the younger cast, I found her character fairly nondescript and not too engaging. However, the threesome Arletti runs into while looking for her father, really add an interesting dimension to the story by providing some internal friction among the group. That the three are having a menage-a-troise type relationship is all but explicitly stated and clearly shocks Hill's character much to their delight. Michael Greer's character of Thom is a young man who comes from money and enjoys a nomadic, bohemian lifestyle. He appears jaded and cynical even as he privately pursues the supernatural legend that has led him to Point Dune. The women accompanying Thom, who he euphemistically calls his "traveling companions", are the extraordinarily beautiful Laura, played by the drop-dead gorgeous, proto-supermodel, Anitra Ford, and Toni - a "half girl, half child and half wit", played with just the right amount of cutie-pie, sex appeal by Joy Bang. Ford and Bang aren't the greatest actresses, but what really works for the two is their wildly different looks, uneven physical statures and opposite demeanors. They could have easily been bland, generic characters, but their striking differences make them memorable. Thom and his girlfriends eventually wind up staying with Arletti at her father's house. Arletti, who still can't locate her father begins to slowly freak out, and the interior art design is not exactly helping.

Things slowly but surely go bad for the characters, but the story doesn't ever get predictable or stale. The pacing is slower than the average American horror film and more akin to something directed by Fulci, Rollin or Franco. But there are enough deaths, tension, imagery and general weirdness to keep the film moving at a bearable clip.

Messiah of Evil was written and directed by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who co-wrote one of my all-time favorite movies, American Graffiti, and co-wrote and directed one of my all-time least favorite movies, Howard the Duck.  In addition, they co-wrote the Temple of Doom entry of the Indiana Jones movies. After viewing the MoE version in the horror pack, which appeared very washed out and public domain-y, I immediately snapped up the remastered Code Red DVD which really brought back the deep blue and red colors. There was also a featurette extra where the couple talked about having been pretentious film school graduates at the time Messiah of Evil was made and being influenced by Italian directors like Antonioni. If this movie was any indication of their pretentiousness, bring it on, I enjoyed every beard-stroking minute.

Score 7.5/10


  1. Great write-up! More people really need to check this flick out.

    1. Thanks Todd, I couldn't agree more. This is one that really fell through the cracks and I was stunned at how well put together it is for such a low budget flick.