Messiah of Evil (1973)
Directed by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz
Starring Michael Greer, Marianna Hill, Joy Bang, Anitra Ford, Royal Dano, Elisha Cook Jr., and Walter Hill
There are Lovecraft adaptations, and then there are movies that feel Lovecraftian. They take place in small coastal towns, where fishing is the main industry. People are secretive there, and they scurry about their business in the shadows. They are up to something in the darkness, but you’re reluctant to find out exactly what. Such a film is Messiah of Evil, and it’s one of the most unsettling movies I’ve ever seen.
Arletty (Marianna Hill) comes to the small coastal town of Point Dune to find her father. His letters had become increasingly strange before stopping altogether, so she wants to find out if he’s okay. Her welfare check turns into a macabre mystery as the community around her descends into madness and putrification, and she’ll be lucky to save herself from the Dark Stranger’s salvation.
The movie starts with Arletty in a sanitarium, with the main action showing how she came to reside there. Her survival, at least while at Point Dune, is assured. It’s a tall order to provide suspense with this narrative framing, and for the most part the film doesn’t bother to try. The mystery aspect is downplayed in favor of an erosion of reality.
This begins on the outskirts of the village, when Arletty stops for gas. The attendant becomes squirrelly when a truck pulls in and sends her away without paying. Peeking as she passes the vehicle, she sees dead bodies loaded in the back. Throughout the story, this manner of unexpected imagery is used to throw the characters and audience off-balance. There are violent and terrible things that occur, but chiefly the horror stems from the accumulated sense of wrongness.
One example of this is the theater scene. Arletty has encountered other outsiders, who are also trying to sort out the strange goings-on. One of them, Toni (Joy Bang), gets tired of hanging around the house and goes wandering around town, eventually deciding to take in a movie. She’s the only one in the theater, but every time the camera shows her there are more townspeople sitting quietly behind her. She becomes uneasy when there are enough of them to start passing directly behind her, and once a few sit next to her it’s all over for Toni. The attack itself is nothing remarkable, but the buildup is a masterpiece of creating tension.
Messiah of Evil is not a great movie, but it’s a good one. The acting and dialog are spotty, and it doesn’t make an abundance of sense. Some of that is likely due to the filming being incomplete. Funds ran out, and it sat in limbo until someone took a risk and edited it for release. What we’re left with is a strange nightmare, filled with disturbing images and few answers. It’s atmosphere is terrific, and sometimes that’s enough for me.