Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Willard Huyck's Messiah of Evil (1973)

A man is running frantically through a neighborhood (future film director, Walter Hill). A gate is opened by a young girl which offers the grateful man sanctuary from who or whatever was chasing him. She slits his throat with a straight razor.
Point Dune. From a brightly-lit hallway, the voice-over narration warns of the location. The voice-over narrator is revealed to be Arletty (Marianna Hill) who is now driving the location. Point Dune is the home of her artist father to whom she corresponds only through letters. His letters have ceased which has prompted Arletty to visit. She stops outside of the town at a gas station and receives a not-so subtle warning: The gas station attendent is seen firing his pistol into the darkness. "Fill'er up?" Arletty doesn't seemed fazed by the attendant's odd behavior but she is struck by the appearance of the next patron. A trucker (Bennie Robinson) arrives, and the attendant begins pumping his gas. Curiously, he peeks into the bed of the truck, where two corpses are nuzzled. The attendant shoos Arletty away without paying, only to now be alone with the trucker.
Arletty arrives at her father's house where there is no sign of him. She finds his sketchpad and flipping through, the sketches give away to words. Her father began chronicling the strange events of Point Dune. The following morning, Arletty goes to an art gallery to learn the whereabouts of her father. The art dealer knows nothing but leads her to Thorn (Michael Greer) who came inquiring earlier that morning about her father. Thorn is currently in his motel room tape-recording the narrative of the history of Point Dune by local drunk, Charlie (Elisha Cook Jr.), while Thorn lays on his bed with his lady Laura (Anitra Ford). Thorn's other lady, Toni (Joy Bang) comes out of the bathroom, and Arletty sizes up the situation. Why did you ask about my father at the art gallery? Thorn gives a cryptic answer, and Arletty leaves. Drunk Charlie gives Arletty a cryptic warning as she exits. Thorn, Laura, and Toni show at Arletty's father's house, after Charlie is found dead.
Drunk Charlie's narrative speaks of the "Blood Moon" over Point Dune, while Arletty's father's chronicle mentions a "Dark Stranger," who visits the town, changing it forever. Co-producer, co-screenwriter, and director Willard Huyck admits that his Messiah of Evil (1973) was influenced by H.P. Lovecraft and "pretentious arthouse cinema" of the late 60s, such as Antonioni and Godard. Screenwriters, Gloria Katz and Huyck (who shared an Oscar nomination with George Lucas for their script on Lucas's best film, American Graffiti (1973)) pen an Innsmouth-ish mystery to carry Messiah's narrative; however, the arthouse influence and the atmosphere permeate throughout the film, truly giving this low-budget film its unique status.
The arthouse influence brings an air of artificiality to Messiah of Evil: character actions are often contrived and not naturalistic; the frame compositions are meticulous (and well-filmed by Katz's brother, Stephen M. Katz in glorious use of widescreen); and the narrative is secondary. Two of the best characters are Thorn's lady companions, svelte, beautiful, and cold Laura and impulsive and cute Toni, who also bring a healthy dose of sensuality to the production. Laura and Toni are ancillary characters to the narrative (Arletty and Thorn drive the mystery), yet their inclusion is wholly necessary. Laura and Toni each have a pivotal scene: both wonderfully and hauntingly orchestrated: Laura's getaway visit into the town, which ends at a grocery store confrontation, and Toni's ill-fated visit for a cinema show within a sparsely-packed movie theatre. Laura's encounter begins with Robinson's trucker from the gas station scene and becomes steadily more mysterious and tension-filled. The quiet atmosphere of the town isn't created with set-pieces: the normal-looking town is shot to look alien and other-worldly. Laura's sequence begins as a slow simmer and escalates to a roaring boil. Toni's sequence is similar in tone yet different in execution. Point Dune's residents reveal themselves as monsters not through solely their appearances but they way they are filmed.
The unreal atmosphere of Messiah of Evil rings loudly and speaks more than its narrative. The visuals are powerful. The Lovecraftian mystery is very intriguing yet doesn't cohere completely. This is an intentional artistic choice by Huyck and Katz, yet it also results from the production running out of money and being unable to film a final sequence which explained all. The resulting ending of the film is still very haunting and well-executed, however; and I was impressed with Messiah's atmosphere and hypnotic vibe to allow the plot to slip to the wayside. Messiah of Evil is a terrific film, worthy of cult status. It has been recently released on DVD by Code Red Entertainment. The film is properly presented in its 2.35 to 1 aspect ratio, which really shows the power of Katz's cinematography, and looks terrific. An approximately twenty-minute featurette is included with many of the film's participants, including Katz and Huyck (from where and from whom I gleaned the objective facts about this film's production), who give a in-depth insight into the production. An audio commentary with Katz and Huyck is also available (which I haven't yet listened); two short films by Katz and Huyck; and an audio interview with Joy Bang. Not least of all, several Code Red trailers are included. Code Red is an excellent DVD label which I financially support and applaud. They have been putting out cult classics and films which should be cult classics onto DVD which have only previously been available on VHS. Buy it here and here.


kindertrauma said...

I can't wait to see this movie all cleaned up and in widescreen! It's an awesome movie but all previous versions I have encountered have been of super low quality. Thanks for the heads up on this release and great review!-Unk

J. Astro said...

I have a shitty Alpha Entertainment version of this disc with atrociously noisy dubbing, hopefully Code Red's version cleaned up the sound in an appreciable manner. If so, I'd totally buy this. Nice write-up!

Aaron said...

I love this movie but unfortunately I have the shitty Mill Creek print of it. I think a better quality DVD would do it justice and judging by your screen shots this one looks pretty nice. I might have to pick this one up. This is one of those movies that definitely caught me by surprise. I picked it out of one of my Mill Creek sets completely at random and was pleasantly surprised by it. Excellent write-up, my man. Thanks for covering this.

Ben said...

I've always thought this one sounded fantastic, but never had the chance to see it... thanks for reminding me to do something about that.

Off to buy the new DVD!

Matt-suzaka said...

Great review, Hans. While substance is very important to me, I have always been more of a style kind of guy and especially when it's in the form of 70's horror. Thanks for pointing this film out to me, I will be adding Messiah of Evil to my DVD wish list!

Hans A. said...

Thnx gents to all for reading and commenting and for the kind words. I really appreciate it.

Mr.LargePackage said...

Explosive review, Hans. Point Dune sounds a lot like Jackson. Except Jackson is a nightmare from which you never wake. And, unfortunately, that is large and in charge.