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DVD SAVANT

Messiah of Evil
The Second Coming
35th Anniversary Special Edition


Messiah of Evil
Code Red
1973 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic widescreen / 90 min. / Revenge of the Screaming Dead; The Second Coming; Dead People / Street Date October 27, 2009 / 24.98
Starring Michael Greer, Marianna Hill, Joy Bang, Anitra Ford, Royal Dano, Elisha Cook Jr., Charles Dierkop, Bennie Robinson, Walter Hill, B. W. L. Norton.
Cinematography
Stephen Katz
Art Direction Jack Fiske (Fisk)
Film Editor Scott Conrad
Original Music Phillan Bishop
Written and Produced by Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz
Directed by Willard Huyck

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Once upon a time before DVD we kept lists of movies that it seemed would never be available for viewing. Mario Bava's Lisa and the Devil was considered lost; the word was that it had been destroyed to make the soft-core variant, House of Exorcism. The elusive Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural existed only in impossibly blurry VHS tapes. Both of those important horror films are now readily available on disc. Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz's Messiah of Evil may be the title that completes the set of early 70's rare horror offerings. The Code Red Company's new DVD loads this long-missing horror opus with tantalizing extras.

We UCLA film students of the early 1970s were constantly reminded of the successes of the graduates that preceded us by only a few years. Francis Coppola was the most noted but plenty of other prize-winning student filmmakers were just beginning to make a dent in Hollywood. Jim Morrison of The Doors had been a UCLA film student and even endowed the film department with a yearly grant.  1 This was the pack that already had accomplished, progressive films under their belts when producers went looking for hot talent to direct features for the post- Easy Rider generation. UCLA's Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz gained considerable prestige with their student work (examples of which are contained on the disc) and were soon engaged helping writing the script for George Lucas' American Graffiti. Seeing a few months of downtime while that project languished, the filmmaking couple were offered an assignment to make a low-budget horror film, and decided to do something different.

Messiah of Evil is a self-professed pretentious art film, a ghost zombie flick that aspires to be Vampyr for the 1970s. The movie rejects contemporary trends in search of weird moods and half-explained relationships. Art figures heavily in the film's design and adds strongly to its impact. Most of the movie plays out in a beach house with an interior designed around mural art; Huyck and Katz are fond of compositions that maroon living human figures against stylized mural backgrounds.  3 Among other locations, the film is a record of the exterior of The Fox Venice Theater, a serious UCLA movie destination of our college years, and a main venue for The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo.

The student-film posing begins with the name of the female protagonist. Arletty Long (Mariana Hill of Black Zoo, Red Line 7000, The Traveling Executioner and Medium Cool) travels to the remote California beach art colony town of Point Dune to check in with her artist father Joseph (Royal Dano). Joseph has warned Arletty not to come near, and on the outskirts of Point Dune she has a strange encounter with a spaced-out albino (Bennie Robinson). The lavish but spooky Long house is empty. Arletty observes figures burning bonfires on the beach. The next day she's treated harshly by the owners of a local art gallery, and then meets Thom (Michael Greer of Fortune and Men's Eyes), a wealthy dissolute who claims to be researching a cursed 100 year-old legend dealing with a "Blood Moon" and a demonic prophet known as The Stranger. Local wino Charlie (Elisha Cook Jr.) warns Arletty that she'll be forced to kill her own father.

Thom and his female companions, the sultry Laura (Anitra Ford) and the underage Toni (Joy Bang) join Arletty as uninvited guests; none of the motels in town would take them. The creepy Thom continues to hit on Arletty as the atmosphere becomes even more oppressive. The jealous Laura and the bored Toni leave on their own, to meet terrible fates on the streets of Point Dune. The centennial of the Blood Moon is visited upon the townspeople, all of whom bleed from the eyes and become cannibalistic ghouls -- as they await the second coming of The Stranger.

Messiah of Evil makes a blessing of its limited resources -- the mannered direction relies on master shots and formal, old-school compositions. What might seem a lot of nothing in somebody else's picture gains shape and menace in terrific set piece sequences: even the emptiness is creepy. Unknown to Arletty, the albino's pickup truck is carrying several dead bodies. Thom is trapped after midnight in a seemingly endless small town center of closed stores sporting brilliant neon signs, an Edward Hopper nightmare. In a brightly lit supermarket, Laura wanders down the empty aisles as if touring a museum of consumerism ... until she comes upon a crowd of ghouls having a feast in the meat section. Although the film only suggests its cannibalistic details, the basic zombies-go-shopping concept of the later Dawn of the Dead is here and intact.

Odd flashbacks to pioneer days prepare us for a bloody apocalypse under the Blood Moon. The film's dramatic momentum sags in the middle when Arletty succumbs to her own malaise. Her father's portraits begin bleeding from the eyes, just as do the cursed townspeople. But she takes no overt action, which allows the beautifully constructed menace of the first hour to stall somewhat. A couple of startling encounters, cannibal attacks on Main Street and a final assault on the house re-energize the screen for the conclusion. Huyck and Katz wrap things up with an effective Caligari story-within-a-story motif, that almost compensates for the lack of a socko finish.

With its odd approach Messiah of Evil collects a gallery of creepy moments. It's simply more interesting than most genre efforts of the early 70's, when Hammer films had lost their way and Hollywood horrors were wasting our time with two-headed transplants and campy vampire tales.

Mariana Hill is excellent as usual; her quiet reactions to all the weird activity make it seem all the more believable. Fans will enjoy seeing Anitra Ford (Invasion of the Bee Girls) in a more rounded performance than is usual. Cult actress Joy Bang is at the end of her short film career, at age 25. Michael Greer sends mixed signals as both a sincere researcher and a rather reprehensible hedonist; we aren't sure why Arletty trusts him, even for a moment.


Code Red's DVD of Messiah of Evil is an excellent transfer of a good-quality film print. The filmmakers followed the low-budget guidelines of the time, hiring name supporting actors for one day apiece and shooting in color with the economical half-frame Techniscope format. Some wide night shots are a bit soft. The audio is carefully designed but has some technical flaws, in that sound effects and voices sometimes seem out of sync by a few frames.

Code Red's Lee Christian moderates a commentary with the filmmakers, who acknowledge the show's rarity; it hasn't been seen in 'Scope since it came out. They identify the anxious victim in the first scene as future writer-director Walter Hill. Bill L. Norton, another director of note, plays a zombie extra. Christian's very entertaining docu Remembering Messiah of Evil brings in more of the film's creative participants, giving a full picture of what it was like for a group of cinematic aspirants trying to lend the film some class. The show is an early credit for art director Jack Fisk, who presumably painted the convincingly impressive mural artwork in the haunted beach house. A look at associate editor Billy Weber's IMDB credits unspools an impressive career as an editor, producer and second unit director.

Joy Bang is heard from in a telephone interview -- after a brief Hollywood run appearing in seemingly every drug film requiring a teenaged runaway, she quietly retired.

Of special interest are two acclaimed (at least in UCLA's film department) student films. Gloria Katz's The Bride Stripped Bare is a split screen faux-docu "happening" around a piece of performance art that confronts male attitudes toward women as sex objects. I've read my share of feminist film criticism from the early 70s, when the radical pose became the norm; Katz hits the subject hard years before, when such a provocative stance was truly daring. Huyck's thesis film Down These Mean Streets is an oddball road picture and a gangster rumination on a quote from Raymond Chandler, that has "UCLA Critical Studies" written all over it. Great stuff from the rarely screened heyday of student filmmaking.  2


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Messiah of Evil rates:
Movie: Very Good - Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Making-of Docu, UCLA student films
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 24, 2009

Footnotes:

1. I would later meet the accomplished Robert Swarthe on the special effects crew for Close Encounters. You couldn't go to an exhibition of sixties animation and comedy shorts without bumping into Bob's work.
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2. True story: 1974. A professor at UCLA tells us about Messiah of Evil; I begin looking for an opportunity to see the horror film made by the writers of American Graffiti. I finally see it listed at a downtown L.A. grindhouse, among seven Spanish-language titles in rotation 24 hours a day. It's due to screen at 4pm on a Sunday afternoon, so I determine to take a trip downtown. If my published friends Silver & Ursini can drive to a Bakersfield drive-in in hopes of seeing a Tech print of a Freda film, I should be willing to make the sacrifice. I sit through the end of one Mexican narco-drama and then the beginning of a deadly Santo picture, and realize that it's 6pm. At the box office a polite manager tells me they must have lost track and skipped Messiah; and anyway, the printed schedule is just a vague idea of what's showing when! If I want to wait until 2AM I can see it then. I ask if he's seen the film, and he can't remember. Do they really have the movie, or just a poster in the lobby? "I guess so", he answers. They refund my money and I go home. There are eight million stories in the naked city of crazy film fans; this has been one of them.
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3. An interesting observation (11.07.09) from a Savant reader who prefers not to be identified: He's compared the beach house in Messiah of Evil with "Monte Baragon's" Malibu beach house in the old Joan Crawford film Mildred Pierce ... and they're the same. The house number is identical and other angles reveal that the walkway view is the same as well. And the Messiah extras say that the scene was filmed in Malibu. This teaches us two things about Savant correspondents: they're remarkably knowledgeable, and they're all wanted by the law!
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson

See more exclusive reviews on the Savant Main Page.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics. Also, don't forget the
2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.

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