Elisha Cook Jr.
1 Hr., 30 Mins.
Messiah of Evil October 16, 2020
essiah of Evil (1973) grabs a hold of one’s fear of the unknown and squeezes and squeezes — it’s a relentlessly creepy horror movie. Its narrative is rooted in a visit. The heroine, Arletty (Marianna Hill), hasn’t seen her painter father, Joseph (Royal Dano), for a while — they are, these days, pretty much estranged. So she decides at the beginning of the movie to spontaneously
go visit him in Point Dume, a small beach hamlet he recently moved to. The sojourn, for him, was meant to be a sort of artist’s retreat; but when Arletty arrives at Joseph’s spacious beachside mansion, he’s nowhere to be found.
The disappearance is undergirded in darkness. When Arletty stumbles on Joseph’s diaries, in store are copious entries detailing a malevolence in the town. There is much talk of a blood moon, a dark stranger. On one page, her father writes of an incident where he accidentally cut himself on something, and no blood erupted from the wound. On another, he’s flummoxed to find that his body temperature has dropped to a staggering 85 degrees. Joseph’s downstairs studio is enveloped in paintings (not just on canvases but on the walls) of various Point Dume settings. They're all flecked with shadowy, unsmiling portraits of residents; their eyes are so hooded, they look like black holes. Their uniformity is cultish.
In his diary entries, all of which are written like letters to Arletty, Joseph implores his daughter not to come looking for him but does encourage her to check in with a nearby art dealer he was ostensibly working with. But the dealer hasn’t heard of Arletty’s father. Although thronged with charming trinket shops and standard-looking franchise locations (it's perfectly bland), Point Dume's downtown is suspiciously empty. There’s no way tourists wouldn’t be all over this. If a resident is seen — which is rarely — they have a ghost-white pallor and black hair. They dress in muted business clothes. They stare and stare but do not smile. It is almost inevitable that the film, eventually, reveals itself to us as zombie-movie adjacent. (The residents will stop simply glassily staring, if you know what I mean.) A lot of suspense derives from how long the danger goes from potential to fully kinetic.
There is nary a moment in Messiah of Evil where we don't feel like we’re being kept in the dark about something. Although the ending seems to explain everything, it leaves room for additional interpretation — as most else. It calls into question whether what we've just seen really happened or if it was imagined. It's impressive how effectively co-directors and co-screenwriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz make both possibilities seem definitive while leaving us with some doubt in either scenario. But that’s how so much of their writing, direction, functions. The movie will seem to be about one thing, but then our minds will wander somewhere else and then it will appear to be about another. In any direction, we never feel anything like overextension.
This elusiveness is part of what makes Messiah of Evil unusually scary — and rarely are horror movies imbued, I think, with a genuine scariness. We know something horrible is happening that we cannot see — and even when we’re given a glimpse of an approximation of that horrible thing, we know there still is something more beneath the surface.
They know that with the genre, it can be hugely effective to explain some things, but not quite everything, to make viewers eager to fill in the blanks in the aftermath of watching the film — making the film seem scarier. It’s the overactive imagination that strengthens one's fears. When they were writing Messiah of Evil, Huyck remembered years later, he and Katz had in mind the Universal monster movies of the 1930s, the bibliography of H.P. Lovecraft, and European art films — they weren't looking toward then-in genre trends. “I wasn’t really a late ‘60s, ‘70s horror fan,” Huyck said.
Messiah of Evil is a horror feature that knows the perils of dwelling too much on the anxieties put forth. A movie like Psycho (1960), for example, became infinitely less frightening during its last five minutes, during which its narrative was retold in such precise detail that there was no room for the viewer to experience the post-viewing highs of speculative fear — the unofficial afterparty of a great horror film. Everything was too cleanly solved; we could only be scared by what we saw. Messiah of Evil has something more in common with movies like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) or The Blair Witch Project (1999); it has sometimes been likened to Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls (1960). We never actually saw the respective eponymous child or the titular hag in those first two features. But we were plenty familiar with the terrors their presence, or the very possibility of them so much as existing, caused, and the unnerving surrounding conjecture. We kind of see the messiah of the title, but his face is never unobscured. We don’t get a good look at him. Why exactly he is evil, or how he has the power to do what he does, is only thinly sketched; same goes for his hold over Point Dume. He remains more an ominous concept than a physical being. Is he real the way he seems to be?
When we see him, it’s only in a flashback — the story being told might not even be true. He’s like one of the witches in Dario Argento’s Mother of Tears trilogy: even when we can’t see them, we can almost feel them in the air. They’re alarmingly omniscient. Seen in Messiah of Evil is an equal parts fuzzy and overpowering threat. It’s in the air. The cinematography by Katz's brother, Stephen, is eternally shrouded in darkness — it evokes Leonardo Da Vinci's famed chiaroscuro. Even visually, the movie retains a disquieting indirectness. In scenes set during the daytime, light seems like a sham. It’s yet another misleading surface.
Huyck and Katz also understand how much more a horror movie can resonate when there’s a Russian dollishness to its narrative — a possible alternate meaning beneath its literal storyline or even many of them. As it often happens with zombie movies, a part of us might think Messiah of Evil is in some way a critique of the zombie-like way members of a society unwittingly conform to the expectations of all-powerful institutions. And how, if you decide to refrain from participating in or at the least attempting to challenge one of those institutions, there’s a very good chance that you are, without hyperbole, going to die. Is the titular messiah capitalism incarnate? Are the Point Dume “zombies” in thrall to him acolytes who never actually gave their consent to abide by him but have to anyway for survival? Better not get too “meaning” happy: a lot of the power of Messiah of Evil is rooted in how it gets to us just viscerally. It wasn’t immediate that I started to pick apart why that is; part of me thinks now I don’t need to.
It’s difficult to put into words the conclusive causation of a pit in one’s stomach. With attempted interpretation can come a diminishing of some of an efficiently mysterious movie’s power. But, then again, that Messiah of Evil's scariest sequences take place in settings which house the biggest wage gaps between the on-the-ground worker and the person at the top of the chain — a grocery store, a movie theater, a new car dealership, a gas station — do not seem coincidental, unworthy of questioning. Is the film’s version of the real Point Dume an emblem of America? In the course of Messiah of Evil, so much of the ugliness of what lies beneath — though saying "what lies beneath" can seem a little like an understatement — comes to the fore. Messiah of Evil is one of the best horror movies of the 1970s; I can’t say I’ve seen anything quite like it. A
uyck and Katz are better known for their work on American Graffiti
(1973) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). They never again worked in horror after Messiah of Evil, unless you count their infamous, unearthly flop Howard the Duck (1985). Yet with Messiah of Evil, which was made with investors' stipulation that the product must be a horror movie, they prove themselves first-rate horror filmmakers.