Nov 1, 2013

Messiah of Evil

Bloodthirsty rodent-biting black albino Wagnerites, blind art dealers, walking and talking zombie-vampires, and heterosexual  Portuguese-American aristocratic dandies are not exactly the most common of filmic characters, yet they are an innate ingredient of the charmingly creepily and uniquely unsettling celluloid tapestry that is Messiah of Evil (1973) aka Dead People aka Messiah of Evil: The Second Coming aka The Second Coming aka Messiah of the Evil Dead aka Deep Swamp aka Revenge of the Screaming Dead directed by husband and wife time Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who are probably best known nowadays for once collaborating with George Lucas  by penning American Graffiti (1973) and later bringing the world big budget pseudo-surreal cinematic garbage like Howard the Duck (1986). Sort of like a counter-culture Carnival of Souls (1962) meets a cult horror take on Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) meets Night of the Living Dead (1968) on kaleidoscopic arthouse acid, Messiah of Evil is an obsessively ominous and oneiric cinematic work with Lovecraftian overtones about a young, bold, and beautiful bourgeois woman who travels to a degenerate beachside Californian village to find her estranged decadent artist father, only to discover the area is controlled by a depraved death-worshipping cult of undead degenerates with an overwhelming need to feed on the living, be it human or otherwise. Featuring art direction by Jack Fisk (Badlands, Mulholland Drive), who would go on to work for David Lynch and Terrence Malick, as well as editing and a cameo acting performance by experimental filmmaker Morgan Fisher (Cue Rolls, Picture and Sound Rushes), Messiah of Evil is also a curious celluloid oddity with a background story that is fittingly strange like the film itself. Originally set to be released under the silly title The Second Coming, Messiah of Evil was actually shot in 1971 and remained unfinished as a quasi-aborted film when the original financiers pulled their money out. Luckily, an opportunistic Frenchman bought the unfinished footage, edited it, and re-titled it Messiah of Evil, thereupon thankfully saving what is easily one of the most intensely idiosyncratic, fiercely foreboding, and sinisterly surreal American horror films ever made. As co-writer/co-director Willard Huyck revealed in the featurette documentary Remembering Messiah of Evil (2009), on top of being inspired by the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and old school Universal monster movies of the 1930s (as opposed to horror flicks of the 1970s, which the director hated), Messiah of Evil was heavily inspired by the films of Jean-Luc Godard and Michelangelo Antonioni as a work with a “strange sort of pretentious art film quality…at the same time it is trying to be a horror film.” Indeed, aside from Richard Blackburn’s Lovecraftian lesbian vampire flick Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973), Messiah of Evil is a singular arthouse horror flick with infinite replay value that deserves the title of being the most underrated American horror film ever made. A largely incoherent phantasmagorical film that allows the viewer to create their own subtext and meaning, Messiah of Evil has been described by many people as an anti-Vietnam war flick, as well as a feminist flick, yet owing to its imperative influence from Spenglerian horror novelist H.P. Lovecraft, I believe the film works best as a demented depiction of racial, cultural, and spiritual degeneration. After all, few things are more primitively disturbing looking than black albinos.

Beginning with a disconnected prologue featuring filmmaker Walter Hill (The Warriors, Southern Comfort) having his throat slit by a homely young lady, Messiah of Evil segues to a statuesque young beauty Arletty (Marianna Hill)—a character named after the French actress that is probably best known for starring in Children of Paradise (1945)—discussing the horrible events that led to her mental breakdown and inevitable institutionalization in a loony bin with people who regularly urinate on themselves. Flash back in time, Arletty has just arrived in the quaint little oceanside town of Point Dune, California—a place described as a “piss poor little town” that is “deader than hell” by a redneck gas station attendant who seems to know more than he lets on—to find her reclusive father and when she arrives, she discovers his beach house is locked and her daddy in nowhere to be found, so she breaks in. While inside, Arletty discovers a diary written by her father addressed to her where he complains about how darkness is taking over Point Dune, how he is suffering from insomnia and obsessing over the grotesque, and that she should not bother looking for him. Of course, after having spent some time traveling to the California hick hellhole, Arletty is determined to find her father and she does not plan to leave until she does so. Figuring that someone at the local art gallery will probably know where her father is since he's a notable degenerate and all (he does pretentious pop-art paintings of people like Lee Harvey Oswald), Arletty decides to make her way there, but the people there act rather evasive as if covering up some deep, dark secret. Of course, the art dealer is rather sketchy because, on top of being blind, she denies having ever sold Arletty’s father's paintings (despite what a certain fellow named Thom has stated), but the arrogant assistant claims a group of people staying at a motel were also looking for him, so she decides to head there. After heading to the motel, Arletty runs into the people she is looking for: a pretentious Portuguese-American aristocrat Thom (gaysploitation actor Michael Greer), who stylizes himself as a sort of counter-culture dandy and wears an ivory 3-piece suit at all times, and his two dimwitted groupie sluts Toni (Joy Bang) and Laura (Anitra Ford). Thom is recording a interview with the town drunk Charlie (Elisha Cook, Jr.), who discusses the dark history of the area (Thom also believes races have their ancient tales and myths, including a backwards place like Point Dune), describing ‘the blood moon’and ‘the dark stranger’, and how since it is the 100 anniversary of the town plunging into darkness, ‘the dark stranger’ will soon return. Unreliable drunk Charlie tries to get Arletty to avoid her father, who has apparently joined the ‘dark side’ and is now ‘one of them’ and cannot be trusted. After letting Arletty know that the mysterious ghouls can only be killed via fire and that he was only able to survive amongst the death cult because they see him a mere harmless drunk, Charlie is killed only moments later, presumably for blabbing his mouth. After being kicked at the motel, Thom and his two gals force themselves into Arletty’s father’s home and squat there in luxury and lechery. Naturally, strange things occur around the house, including the vampire locals occupying the beach and staring at the moon at night during what is described as ‘The Waiting,’ where they devour every and any animal or human they can find, be it dead or alive.  Meanwhile, Arletty learns from local authorities that her father has been picked up multiple times for wandering around in a deranged state, thus giving the little lady little hope that she will ever see her daddy again, at least as the same person she remembers him.

In one of the most iconic scenes of Messiah of Evil, Thom’s groupie Laura, who hitches a ride from a Svengali-like black Albino who is blasting Richard Wagner on his radio while devouring rats, heads to the local supermarket, where she spots the depraved and ghastly locals devouring raw red meat like zombies and when the girl tries to make a run for it, she is captured by the hungry humanoid horde, who eat her in a Night of the Living-esque gore orgy style. In what is arguably the second most famous scene of Messiah of Evil, Toni goes to the local Point Dune movie theater all by her lonesome after Thom kicks her out so he can be all alone with Arletty. While watching a trailer for the garbage western Gone with the West (1975) starring James Caan, Toni is bombarded by a voracious horde of ghoulish vampire-zombies, who she does not even notice sitting right behind her. Although Thom attempts to rescue Toni after realizing she may be in trouble, he is a tad too late and things begin to stir into an all out otherworldly vampire nightmare, including the eventual appearance of the mysterious ‘Messiah of Evil’ (also played by Michael Greer) who is apparently an ex-minister and Donner Party survivor from the late 19th century who became a true believer of the corpse cause after resorting to cannibalism for survival and who ultimately reigns supreme as the alpha undead vampire-zombie. A creepy charlatan looking to start a sort of commie corpse revolution by spreading his unholy ravenous religion, the Messiah plans to lead the residents of Point Due inland. During all the corpse-addled commotion, Thom has the flesh on his neck ripped out by an undead blonde hag and two cops in riot gear fight a losing battle with a carnivorous collection of walking corpses, ultimately with one becoming a zombie-vampire and the other shooting his partner, whose corpse is feasted upon by the horde. After burning her undead father alive (as he said, he "tried to warn her"), Arletty loses her mind and even stabs Thom when he comes to rescues her. Despite being somewhat convinced she might also be a member of the undead, Arletty is eventually convinced to go to the beach house by Thom. Surrounded by an unhinged army of the dead, Thom and Arletty make the mistake of attempting to make a getaway by swimming in the ocean. Unsurprisingly, Thom drowns and Arletty is captured by the man-meat-eating messiah, but he decides against her being “sacrificed to the Messiah” and lets her go to spread the message about the majesty of the death cult. Not unsurprisingly, Arletty is institutionalized after spreading the gospel and confesses how she dreads the day when the Messiah and his minions come back for her.

Despite the directors never getting to film the last scene (on top of editing it, etc.), which was supposed to be the most climatic scene and explain the whole story, Messiah of Evil somehow managed to develop into the semi-underground cult horror masterpiece it is today, not least of all due to the fact that the film features a sort of demented dream logic that incessantly fiddles with the poor viewer’s subconscious. According to director Willard Huyck, Messiah of Evil was originally supposed to end with the ‘Messiah of Evil’ aka ‘Dark Stranger’, who as it turns out is really aristocrat Thom (hence why actor Greer played both characters), taking protagonist Arletty as his undead bride, thus ending on a beauteously bittersweet note (after all, the two had chemistry together!) In my somewhat humble opinion, Messiah of Evil is the ultimate piece of arthouse cult horror cinema as a radically refreshing work (despite its age and sometimes outmoded wardrobes) of celluloid eccentricity, aberrant artistry, and marvelous (im)moral waywardness that truly offers a singular experience that only gets better with subsequent viewings. Although featuring marginal gore/violence comparable to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and a nonlinear plot (or lack thereof) comparable to Jess Franco’s Necronomicon - Geträumte Sünden (1968) aka Succubus, Messiah of Evil is certainly a work that will be more of interest to arthouse fans the philistine gorehounds. While I would be unquestionably committing an act of good old puffery to say that the film is without flaws (especially considering its dubious production history), in its own way, Messiah of Evil is truly immaculate in its eerie idiosyncrasy and relentless ambiguity as a work that can only marginally be compared to other films. After all, what other film features an albino negro who eats rats asking a scared white girl if she likes Wagner (hilariously pronouncing it Wag-ner)?! A delightfully demented yet dreamy depiction of indiscriminately hungry zombie-vampires who are ‘clinging on to the old gods’ and killing every living creature they see in the process, Messiah of Evil is cultural, racial, and spiritual degeneracy at its most hopelessly haphazardly hallucinatory as a work of macabre movie magic that both mystifies and tantalizes the viewer, ultimately leaving them with a sense of metaphysical dread as well as aesthetic delight in the end. 

-Ty E

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