Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Messiah of Evil 1973

The best H.P. Lovecraft movie ever without even being based on one of his stories.

 "The visions are coming from areas of my mind that I don't understand...these grotesque images keep crowding in on me...At night I find myself wandering through the town...catching glimpses of horrid animals I know can't be real...Women with pale faces and shadowy figures, staring out at the black water....."

     Messiah of Evil (AKA Dead People) from 1973 is one of the creepiest horror movies to come out of the 70's, mixing surreal art-house images,hinted at H.P Lovecraft horrors & a dash of George Romero. Directed by Willard Huyck and written by Huyck and his wife Gloria Katz , who had were also working on George Lucas's American Graffiti screenplay at the same time and later would be behind Howard the Duck.
   After a prologue showing a young man (future director & screenwriter Walter Hill) getting his throat slashed by a girl, we then move to a woman Arletty (Marianna Hill) who is in an asylum recounting her recent experiences. The woman relates in flashback her visit to the small Calif. coastal town of Pointe Dune to see her father, an artist who has been living there. Upon arriving in the town , she stops at a gas station where a tall albino man with a couple of bodies in the back of his pick-up and the attendent whispering at her "just leave now" wonderfully sets the atomphere of rest of the movie. In the town she vists an art gallery run by a blind woman (in one of the film's many off-kilter moments) and then finds her fathers studio - a weird cavernous building with creepy paintings covering the walls, a suspended bed and the constant sound of waves booming on the shore. She finds her fathers diary and discovers him missing. Royal Dano (who deep voice is instantly recognizable to movie buffs) supplies the voice over to the daughters readings of his diary that recount a strange physical change coming over him and things he believes he's begun to see and hear. He remains unseen to the very end (with a very memorable appearance) but its his voice & narration that add to film's feeling of dread.

   Meeting  up with a strange threesome consisting of a man named Thom (Michael Greer) and two woman Laura (Anitra Ford) and Toni (Joy Bang) who are also there to see her father, Arletty begins to slowly realize the horror that is infecting Point Dune. An old wino played by Elisha Cook Jr. relates the legend of the blood moon to the group (and naturally dies soon after) that infects the inhabitants of the town with a strange madness. Many of the plot points are left intentionally unexplained and although zombies do appear, we're never sure exactly of their genesis. Is it the moon ?... plus there's a flashback that tells of a mysterious stranger showing up in the town 100 years earlier who survived the Donner Party and now has a taste for human flesh that he wants pass along.

  Many of the films most memorable moments that Huyck & Katz weave into the narrative are of the slightly unsettling places that we've all been in. A 24 hour grocery store where your the only customer late at night and a quiet empty movie theater that you take a seat in with only a couple of silent people to share it with you. Any fan of H.P. Lovecraft who watches this movie can really begin to feel the presence in the movie of the unknown/unseen horrors that he referred to in his works. Dano's spoken narration (see the quote above) and  lonely shots of the ocean with the  townspeople silently staring out into it, bring to mind Innsmouth and the "deep ones" of the Cthulhu Mythos. Not a perfect movie by any means , but a very rewarding cinematic horror experience that you'll be thinking about after you climb into bed for the evening.

   Ignored when first released and then later dumped into the public domain hell of bargain video it's appeared on countless budget releases (that all but destroyed Stephen Katz's widescreen cinematography and the film's atmosphere) , plus at some point a song was inserted into the beginning. Thankfully in 2009 Bill Olsen of Code Red  released a beautiful DVD with a newly struck anamorphic transfer and a batch of interesting extras. Best of all is a commentary from Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz where they relate the film's troubled production (the ending was never adequately finished). Sadly this is now OOP, but a blu-ray release is rumored. Also included is an audio interview with the somewhat reclusive Joy Bang (her married name at the time).


  1. Though it kind of feels European, it's one of my favorite American horror films and, like you mention, definitely the best Lovecraft movie not based on any particular story. Perfect nightmare horror, too. I'm glad it eventually got a proper release, as I didn't feel it deserved to be amongst the dime-a-dozen bargain film sets.

  2. It does have kind of a Lovecraft feel. The Deep Ones returning from the depths. Messiah of Evil

  3. Very much Lovecraft - really brings up a Shadow Over Innsmouth vibe.