Elisha Cook Jr.
1 Hr., 30 Mins.
Messiah of Evil September 4, 2020
essiah of Evil” (1973) grabs hold of one’s fear of the unknown and squeezes and squeezes — it’s a relentlessly creepy horror movie. The film’s narrative springs from a visit. The heroine, Arletty (Marianna Hill), hasn’t seen her painter father, Joseph (Royal Dano), for a while — they are, by now, pretty much estranged. So she decides at the beginning of the feature 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. When Arletty arrives at Joseph’s spacious beachside mansion, though, he’s nowhere to be found.
This disappearance is undergirded in darkness. When Arletty stumbles on Joseph’s diaries, she reads copious entries detailing a malevolence in the town. There is much talk of a blood moon, a dark stranger. On one page, her father talks of accidentally cutting himself on something and having no blood pour 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, 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 to check in with a nearby art dealer. 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), the downtown area itself is disconcertingly 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 do not 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. The film's conclusion 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.
The 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 that horrible thing, we know there is still something more beneath the surface. This is not a case of plot-hole-ridden screenwriting — it’s more a sterling case of screenwriting that really gets what works, and what doesn’t, about the horror genre. “Messiah of Evil” might be one of the best horror movies of the 1970s; I can’t say I’ve seen anything quite like it.
They know that with the genre, it’s crucial to explain some things, but not quite everything, to make viewers eager to fill in the blanks in the aftermath — making the film seem scarier. It’s the overactive imagination that cultivates one’s biggest fears, after all. When they were writing the movie, Huyck remembered years later, he and Katz had in mind the Universal monster movies of the 1930s, the bibliography of H.P. Lovecraft, European art films. “I wasn’t really a late ‘60s, ‘70s horror fan,” Huyck said.
A movie like “Psycho” (1960), for example, became infinitely less frightening during its last five minutes, where 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). We never actually saw the respective eponymous child or the titular hag in those 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 title’s messiah, 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. 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. Yet 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 evil. It’s in the air. The cinematography by Katz's brother, Stephen, is eternally shrouded in darkness — it has a similar effect to Leonardo Da Vinci's famed chiaroscuro technique. 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 joy 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; part of me thinks now I don’t need to. It’s difficult to put into words the absolute 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 the film’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 what lies beneath slowly but inexorably comes to the fore. 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, unless you count their infamous, uncanny 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.