Messiah of Evil

07/10/2023 10:56

Film: Messiah of Evil

Year: 1974

Directors: Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz

Writers: Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz

Starring: Michael Greer, Marianna Hill and Joy Bang



This was a movie that I didn’t know about until getting into horror movie podcasts. It doesn’t pop up all the time, but periodically I hear about it. The title piqued my interest so I decided to choose this as a movie for Side Quest Podcast as it seemed to fit the bill for movies that we cover there and giving me an excuse to move it up. I also now had the chance to do a rewatch at the Gateway Film Center, which celebrated the 50th anniversary on 4K.

Synopsis: a young woman goes searching for her missing artist father. Her journey takes her to a strange Californian seaside town governed by a mysterious undead cult.

We start this by seeing a guy fleeing down a road. He falls and looks exhausted. A girl opens a nearby gate and allows him in. He goes inside. To cool down, he washes his face with pool water. The girl approaches. His throat is slit.

It then shifts us to a corridor that is backlit and out of focus. We hear voice-over narration from Arletty (Marianna Hill). The thing that I noticed was that there is a seaside town that was called New Bethlehem. It is now changed to Point Dune. There was a strange occurrence with a blood moon and tragedy. Arletty’s father is Joseph Lang (Royal Dano). He wrote letters to her as he stayed in this town after her mother passed away. He warned Arletty to stay away and then his letters got even more strange until they stopped. She recounts going to look for him and how it changed her life as well.

We see then as Arletty goes there to see what happened to him. She arrives to the outskirts of town to get gas. There is an odd interaction with the attendant, played by Charles Dierkop. It gets even weirder when an albino trucker shows up, Bennie Robinson. From there, she goes to her father’s house and no one answers. She breaks in to find the place empty. She does find in his sketchpads a diary of the events before he disappeared. She starts to read it that night. I want to point out here that Joseph painted odd murals on the walls of people. It feels like they’re staring at you.

The next day she goes into town to see if anyone knows what happened to her father. She starts at an art gallery. They knew of him, but never met. The two working do bring up that another group came and inquired about him early that day. This leads her to a motel. The group is Thom (Michael Greer), Toni (Joy Bang) and Laura (Anitra Ford). They’re listening to Charlie (Elisha Cook Jr.) tell his story. He’s a wino that gives an interesting backstory to the town.

Due to them talking to Charlie, he is found dead and the group kicked out of the motel. They sneak into Joseph’s house and Arletty allows them to stay. There is something odd going on here, as the synopsis said. People are in a trance and it seems to start when their eyes leak blood. Arletty and this group need to figure out what is happening before it is too late.

That is where I’ll leave my recap and introduction to the characters. Where I want to start is that this is an odd little film. It wasn’t necessarily what I was expecting. I don’t mean this as a bad thing though. What we get here feels like elements from Salem’s Lot or Dead and Buried. I know this came out before both and you could say this inspired the atmosphere. There is this isolated town that those that live near it know there is something off. The gas station attendant tries to warn Arletty away, like her father did. The need to know what happened to Joseph drives her there. I’d even say that Offseason borrows elements.

Now that I’ve set that up, let me dive deeper. My favorite part is the lore. This town was called New Bethlehem. That was until a dark stranger came. It was then changed to Point Dune. This stranger claimed to have gone over the mountains with the Donner Party and brought a new religion with him. I should preface, this stuff here happened 100 years ago. That would be from the time this takes place. It seems like this dark stranger placed a curse on the town and then walked into the ocean. This gives me Lovecraftian vibes. The god he worships seems to be an elder one and cannibalism is a part of it. It is a new religion, only in that it wasn’t in this town before he came. When this gets told to us, I was sucked in. These are also elements that I get the feeling Offseason was inspired by.

Having this backstory and this seemingly empty town is creepy. I’ll go back to the fact that we have normal residents and people living in a nearby area. They know to stay away for fear of their safety. Since this place feels empty which makes it creepy. Almost like a ghost town. I thought that added to the atmosphere. There are also murals in Joseph’s home that help here. Another is the grocery store and the movie theater sequences. Both are good set pieces.

I do want to go over to a negative. I don’t fully understand this curse or sickness or whatever it is. There are times where someone seems to change almost at once. Then we get other times where it is slow process. There could be elements of being closer to those infected can speed it up or how strong willed someone is. None of that is set up. It is creepy either way. This doesn’t ruin the movie if the filmmakers know. I’m not entirely sure they do though. This didn’t have the largest budget and I believe I read that the filmmaking had issues so that could be part of my problem. I still enjoy what this is doing though.

Before I move away from the story, I do want to delve a bit more into this cult. For the most part, they don’t talk. We see that they bleed from their eyes. It looks like they’re cannibals and eat raw meat. You could go as far to say that they’re zombies of sorts. What make it difficult to call them that is that they don’t die. That would shift them over to being like voodoo zombies. That is not the religion here, but there is a curse or something along these lines that causes them to change by this elder god who controls them. Again, I’ll say that what they do here is creepy.

That should be enough there so I want to go to the acting. I thought that Hill was solid as our lead. She plays someone who is confused and seeks answers. What she gets might not be want she wants though. Greer, Bang and Ford are good as the other group that she falls in with. Arletty is isolated and that is a lonely feeling so it makes sense for them to join up. I thought that Dano, Cook, Dierkop, Robinson and the rest of the cast rounded this out for what was needed as well.

All that is left then is filmmaking. I thought that the cinematography and editing were good. One of my favorite sequences is when Toni is trying to sleep in Joseph’s bed. She looks at the different paintings on the walls and it freaks her out. That was a good touch. They do different things to build tension that worked for me. There is also the soundtrack. There is synth-wave music that helps make it more eerie. I always have a soft spot for that. The only other thing is the effects. This is a low budget movie. It did the best of what it could here. It is limited to what we see. They looked good though, so I’ll credit that. The blood might be a bit too bright, but not enough to ruin it. I also have a soft spot for that from this era.

In conclusion, this is a movie that I had a different expectation coming in. I’m not going to hold that against this. We get an isolated town that harbors a secret. This does well in building the atmosphere from the ghost town to the creepy people. Filmmaking helps there, with credit to cinematography, the editing and soundtrack. The acting was solid. No one necessarily stood out, but no one was bad either. This is an interesting film for sure that is just lacking certain things to fully put this as a great to me. Still worth a viewing if the things I’ve said pique your interest.


My Rating: 7.5 out of 10