Monday, September 12, 2016

Zombie Cleanup In Aisle 5


When any film made in the ‘70s opens with a young girl sporting a Marcia Brady-like patterned dress slitting the throat of a grown man, it probably doesn’t have to work too hard to win me over. Thusly do we enter 1973’s cult classic, Messiah of Evil. 

Quick Plot: Arletty heads to a small coastal town in search of her father, a renowned painter who came to the remote seaside town of Point Dune, California, to work in peace. While she doesn’t find her dad, Arletty does discover his diary, in which he recorded the odd happenings that plagued him in recent months. 


Rather than sit down and FINISH reading the increasingly ominous journal entries, Arletty wanders the mysterious town to ask suspicious locals if they can help. Soon she stumbles upon a trio of swinging hippies, led by the seductive Thom and now spending the night in her father’s modern mansion. When one of Thom’s lady partners decides to split, we see that the town of Point Dune is in the slow process of descending into some sort of zombie-like state of cannibalism.


Messiah of Evil is a strange, strange little film, and ultimately, it’s all the better for it. Written and directed on a minuscule budget by William Huyck and Gloria Katz (screenwriters for Indianna Jones and the Temple of Doom and Howard the Duck), the movie suffered a good deal of financing woes and may (according to some reports) have been edited and released by a team not associated with the original production at all. Oddly enough, such confusion seems to help the overall effect of the film.


The plot is a mess. Motivations are hardly explained. The history of Point Dune’s human-eating cult is somewhat tossed in in the film’s final act (though much of what comes before seems to assume the audience already knows) and there’s the lingering issue that if Arletty had just sat down for twenty minutes and finished her dad’s very detailed diary entries, this whole situation could have been avoided and our pretty redheaded protagonist could be sipping daiquiris on a beach not oozing with the carnivorous undead. 


And yet, the messiness of Messiah of Evil may be part of its charm. The pacing is so inconsistent that the film puts you in a constant state of unease. Scenes of horror, as especially evidenced by Thom’s second girlfriend’s ill-fated trip to the cinema, unfold slowly, quietly, and in such a way that it turns audience impatience into brilliant tension. 


High Points
The film’s ending (hinted at with its opening framing device) does a great job of making the events of Messiah of Evil all the more cruel


Low Points
I suppose the film could have explained or even planted stronger seeds about its blood moon/cannibal cult/devil’s descendent/zombie plague mythology earlier on, but what can you do?

Lessons Learned
You don’t just unzip a man and say good night


Being sleep deprived and going insane due to mutant demon bites will do wonders for your penmanship

Popcorn buckets were gloriously bottomless in the 1970s


Look! It’s—
Royal Dano, always and forever known to be as the first victim of those pesky Killer Klowns From Outer Space playing the part of Arletty’s long-suffering zombified dad

Also, who knew! A founding member of The Blue Man Group

Also of note: the production design is credited to none other than Jack Fisk, he of such noted De Palma classics as Carrie and Phantom of the Paradise (and yes, also the husband of the one and only Sissy Spacek)

Rent/Bury/Buy

I’d long seen Messiah of Evil show up on forgotten movie lists, and I’m quite glad I finally gave it a go (streaming free for Amazon Prime users). The film is something of a mess, but as discussed, those elements somehow work together to create a strange nightmare of sorts that stands quite high in the post-Night of the Living Dead surge of zombie horror. It’s definitely worth a go. 

8 comments:

  1. I never quite got what people see in this one. I do like the way it looks, the locations... some of the setups... but overall it's such a nonsensical mess.
    Yet it keeps coming up on lists.
    I'm odd man out on the Fulci movies as well... so maybe there is some similar brilliance to them that I'm just not seeing.

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    1. Oh I can TOTALLY see how not liking the Fulci aesthetic would make this one also not work for you. It is a lot of nonsense, and I don't know that its flaws were intentional. But weirdly, they just add up for me to be something eerie and fascinating. Different strokes!

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  2. On the other hand, I absolutely love the early Jean Rollin vampire movies... and I know those aren't everyone's cuppa joe.

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    1. I've seen two Rollin films (The Iron Rose and Grapes of Death) and adored both. I would almost group them in the same big class as Messiah of Evil and some Fulci, but the very best version of it!

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  3. Always piqued by mention of a zombie film I've not come across. You've done enough here to ensure I get it on my list! Cheers, Steven.

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    1. Awesome! I'd never really heard of Messiah of Evil described as a zombie film, but it definitely is, in a very different and eerie way. Hope you enjoy!

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    2. I think three things make Messiah of Evil worthwhile despite the lack of narrative cohesiveness: the The Birds-inspired movie theater sequence, the supermarket sequence, and those awesome murals of life-size people.

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    3. Those sequences are definitely the ones that will stay with me. Both have such a great prolonged setup and really take their time to develop. The artwork is also key in helping to keep everything slightly off-kilter and weird.

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