Messiah of Evil (1973)

Some movies ooze style over substance. This movie is practically gushing with it. It’s the perfect representation of what was being done in 1970s horror: violent, shocking, twisted, nightmarish. It’s also an incoherent mess, but that isn’t exactly unusual for 1970s horror either. Lots of horror of this decade works more as a dreamscape, particularly the greats that were coming out of Europe. Yet it isn’t something that fled the shores of Italy to stalk the screens of our theaters; this is all American, baby!

Arletty, a young woman with no last name, arrives in Point Dume, California, to try and find her artist father. She’s greeted with bizarre people and frightening goings on even from the beginning, such as a gas station attendant firing a pistol off into the night, strange cries in the darkness, and fires on the beach. But the townspeople say they don’t know her father, and soon she is spending time with a trio of travelers who have a bizarre relationship and a twisted way of expressing themselves. Worse yet, packs of people with pale faces and black clothes begin appearing in the town, more people are missing or dying, the radios don’t work, and Arletty discovers a strange story of a blood red moon and the bizarre journal of her father. Worse yet, she seems to be getting sick. What is happening in Point Dume, and who will survive?

Well, you’ll know from the start that Arletty does, because she’s narrating. Yes, it’s another movie with a narrator, though it’s practically a necessity here because the edit is so unusual. Yet Arletty’s narration is also only a piece of the puzzle, as her father’s journal is also narrated throughout, adding another voice to the mix. It’s like having footnotes of footnotes of a film. The story adds yet another layer, and eventually it’s shown in a montage flashback, with limited images that imply the horror behind.

That’s where Messiah of Evil becomes amazing. The imagery you see is hallucinatory, creepy, and the kind of thing that will make your skin crawl. The people are unusual, and some of their acts will disgust you. However, what’s much worse is what is not shown. No radio stations work in town. The gas station attendant sees a horrid secret and ends up dead, but we don’t see how he dies, we just see his corpse after the fact and know how bad it was. One person’s corpse is only described as “the dogs must have gotten to it.”

The imagery isn’t just from the camerawork here though. The house of Arletty’s father is painted with garish designs of pastel boardwalks and beach imagery, ruined by the sudden imposition of black and white figures in suits that stand out in clumps. They recall the unusual people of Carnival of Souls. These people are the ones on the beach, the ones who stare at the moon; yet in the paintings they’re staring at the painter. Even the walls of the set hold a menace.

Yeah, I love this movie. It’s in the same place I hold films like The Beyond or Jacob’s Ladder, where what I’m seeing is the pure power of cinematography rending me speechless even while I struggle to understand the meaning behind it in any coherent way. It’s that incoherence that makes it work though, because explaining the image might remove its power over me. The unknown is more terrifying than the known; the known can be quantified, qualified, dealt with. Messiah of Evil isn’t a known thing, and that’s what makes it work. Whether its as simply as a mispronounced composer’s name or as strange as a reworking of a plot point so that a connection between two characters across time is severed, this movie’s world doesn’t fit right, and that’s what makes it spectacular.

I guess I should point out that the directors of this movie went on to make Howard the Duck, another film that is unusual for entirely different reasons. Hey, they can’t all be winners.

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