Sunday, January 25, 2009

When the moon turns red and the dead walk the earth...

Here's a lesson, learn it well: Always take chances. A few years ago I got a collection of bad zombie films for like 10 bucks mostly cause I wanted to watch Last Man On Earth. On the disc were like 9 other films (Night of the Living Dead was the obligatory classic as it has no copyright to battle with). I watched most of them (including Amando de Ossorio's terrible vampire comedy Fangs of the Living Dead and Lucio Fulci's nightmarishly nonsensical House by the Cemetery) as occasionally there's a decent film hiding among the mostly bad ones in these sorts of collections. Anyway, I'd watched all of the films in the collection except one and I only remembered to watch it because the other film on the disc I'd just watched, The Thirsty Dead, was on a Something Weird double feature with The Swamp of the Ravens. I'd watched The Thirsty Dead, hadn't I? How bad could this other film, The Messiah of Evil, be? Well, as it turns out it was really awesome and I'm glad that watching The Swamp of the Ravens didn't turn me off of it completely. Was that story way too confusing? I need to get out more.

The Messiah of Evil
by Willard Huyck
I'm not sure exactly sure what to call you, my friend? Dead People would appear to be the film's actual title if the IMDB is to be believed, but it sounds more like a working draft title, something that they created while it was still being fine-tuned by the powers that be. I can tell you that if I didn't know better I'd say that the title Messiah of Evil was something distributors attached to it to capitalize on it's satanic climate so they could send it to drive-thrus with Jean Brismée's The Devil's Nightmare (that's the seven deadly sins movie, in case you were wondering). However, Code Red DVD, the same fanboys who brought you hi-def transfers of Beyond The Door and Don't Go Into The Woods.....Alone recently did a remarkable job with the 35mm transfer of the DVD. I would still have my doubts about the title but they actually got Willard Huyck and editor Scott Conrad to actually touch up the print themselves and approve it for DVD release. With the actual director behind the project, he must have endorsed the title choice, even if it wasn't the original, so I'm going with The Messiah of Evil (though I do like one of it's secondary names, The Return of the Screaming Dead, a whole lot. And you have to admire the brazenness of a title like The Second Coming for a film about satan).

Anyway, so, we start with one of the two voice over tracks we'll be hearing throughout. A woman running down the halls of what appears to be an asylum of some sort warning us about something...someone. This someone's appearance is going to bring death and destruction and there's nothing we can do to stop it. She's seen it before. Her use of the past-tense lets us know that the film proper shall be a flashback and that the fates of every character we meet are pretty much sealed. It all started when her father, an artist of some repute, stopped writing her a few weeks ago. He warned her not to follow, but daughters being daughters, she did. Her travels took her to a seaside town called Point Dune that Huyck and co-writer, director and spouse Gloria Katz never give a region in the country, but it's pretty apparently California. Anyway Point Dune became famous because of legend surrounding the town involving a blood red moon. People stopped moving there not too long ago and everyone you ask will tell you it's a dead town (they just don't know how right they are). On the way into town, Arletty (more brazenness from Huyck, naming his very plain star after one of the most legendary of French Actresses), stops at a mobil station at the same time as a big creepy guy in a red truck. The attendant (who is inexplicably shooting at a cactus with a revolver when we first see him) knows some shit is up when he sees that the bed of the truck has a pile of corpses in it, but decides to keep it to himself and insists rather rudely that our young heroine keep on driving. A short while later the attendant is killed by somebody we can't see beneath the belly of a car he had been working on.

Point Dune is a little like that town in Utah that Candice Hilligoss stays in in Carnival of Souls; it's deserted, spooky, and right on the water. Arletty goes to an art gallery where her father's work is being displayed and aside from a suitably creepy blind dealer and a good number of her dad's paintings on display, she finds nothing worth writing home about. She goes to the hotel room of someone her father mentioned in his last letter and finds a vagabond relating the contents of his dreams to a slick Michael Sarazin type named Thom and his two female sidekicks Toni and Laura. This being the 70s Toni's age is never alluded to; she could be as young as 14 and as old as 24. Laura is Thom's sometimes girlfriend if I'm reading their dialogue right. Thom plays aloof with Arletty and doesn't give much away. We'll learn that he's a sort of Lafcadio Hearn of small town America. He goes around collecting folk lore and weird tales like the one the old man shared with him. Before Thom shows up again, Arletty runs into the vagabond who delivers a cryptic warning, but our girl is having none of it. If she didn't leave when the gas station attendant told her to, a drunk raconteuring for alcohol to strangers isn't going to change her tune either.
When Arletty returns to her father's fascinatingly decorated house that night she finds Thom and the girls have beat her there (both Laura and Toni have already taken showers). Thom tells her that his lust for collecting tales has led him here to her father's house and would be happy to leave if he weren't so goddamned certain that he could get Arletty to sleep with him. He also off-handedly mentioned that the old man was found eaten alive in an alley way. After Laura blows up in her horny friend's face, Thom admits he does indeed want to sleep with Arletty, but he'll wait until things are only slightly less awkward before they consummate anything. Laura leaves that night in a huff (here's where Toni's age confusion comes in. When Laura is saying goodbye to her younger friend, she says "You'll be alright, you're just a kid." This could mean literally anything, of course, but I feel like her relative uncouth behavior at dinner characterizes her as a teenager. But I digress). So Laura attempts to hitch a ride out of town, and who should pick her up but our friend the crazy guy who drives the red pickup. His scene lasts just long enough for him to eat a rat in front of the disgusted Laura who feels she'd rather walk than deal with that noise. As he drives away she sees that the bed of his truck has about eight more corpses than it did the last time we saw it and their all sitting up right. When no one greets her at the motel she finds, she heads to the grocery store. The guy who follows her down the aisles would have been creepy enough, but when she finds a pack of well-dressed people sitting in the meat rack eating as much of the red stuff as they can fit in their hands, that's really the last straw. She doesn't make it out of the store alive.

The next morning Arletty gets a call from the police; they found her father (how do they know that she's staying in his house? O-O-O-O-OH!!) She goes to scene of the crime; seems he was building some structure on the beach, which I'd wager is a sacrificial alter of some kind, and it collapsed on him, killing him instantly. She goes home distraught and explains to Thom that it couldn't be her father; her father's hands were much smaller, they were the hands of an artist, you see. Thom sends Toni to the movies so Arletty can spill her guts to him and Toni has an even creepier evening than Laura did. In a scene consciously reminiscent of The Birds Toni sits in the theatre watching a trailer for Gone With The West with the theatre fills with pale folks with dead eyes. She only notices that she's the only warm body when two of them sit on either side of her. She gets up and tries to leave but the doors are locked from the outside. Goodnight, Toni.

Thom goes out that night and finds the streets full of the bloodthirsty undead; Arletty stays in and gets a visit from her father, who she had believed to be dead by this point. Dad explains that 100 years ago a stranger came out of the woods and explained that he was bringing with him that death and pestilence that Arletty mentioned in the opening voice over, and that he's coming back now to do the same, hence all the zombies. In one final move of conscious humanity, Dad tries to stop himself from killing his daughter, but can't really do it so she stabs him with a pair of sheet metal cutters and then sets him on fire. Thom shows up in time to try and save her from the hoards of the undead gathering on the roof. Once they escape Arletty has one more surprise in store for her.
I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that Lucio Fulci had seen this movie. An open portal to hell movie where the dead sorta take their time coming back and killing people. Our hero is a blonde who receives orders from an omniscient presence who turns out to be not of this earth. Like Fulci's The Beyond, Messiah of Evil is a little bit zombie film, a little bit satan film, a little bit mystery, and a whole lot a crazy. Unlike Fulci's film, I rather liked The Messiah Of Evil and was pleasantly surprised to find another zombie film made in the first half of the 70s that didn't suck out loud. It more than a little takes from Night of the Living Dead and Carnival of Souls, but it had a lot of things going for it. In the good corner, it has Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz. Huyck and Katz are really great filmmakers when they choose to be. They won, along with George Lucas, the best screenplay oscar for American Graffiti and would spend most of their time following that success working for Lucas on increasingly bad movies. This must have been the film that Lucas saw that made him take an interest in the two and I suppose I would have too. The Messiah of Evil does a lot with very little and along with Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is the best of the post-night pre-dawn zombie films. And as an added bonus, first instance of running zombies in film history!!!!! Take note, students. That's crucial!

Also in it's favor are strong performances from just about everyone. Michael Greer I like a lot in this because he starts off as one of those tremendously sleazy, immaculately dressed svengali types that haunt so many bad 70s films, but it's an act and the script knows it's an act. Thom sheds his layers as shit gets weirder and weirder until he's just a regular guy dealing with a situation much bigger than him. Huyck keeps him shady enough for the first half of the film to suggest he might be in on it, but he drops it coolly as the movie wears on. Elisha Cook Jr. as the crazy guy in the red truck is pretty mesmerizing. The sound of him biting into a rat is something I won't forget anytime soon. Huyck and Katz' screenplay was pretty thoughtful with it's characterization of everybody. Also, apparently Walter Hill is in here somewhere as an extra. The only thing I didn't really like was Marianna Hill's voice over that runs throughout - it's a little too dramatic and Barbara Steele-esque for a film this small. Oh, and speaking of small, Huyck and Katz do an impressive amount with very little. Future Oscar nominee Jack Fisk's art direction is flooring. The colors are pretty amazing, especially in the movie theatre when they accentuate the cold colors of everyone but Toni. Arletty's dad's apartment is painted so that it resembles some kind of expressionistic, post-modern mall and is decorated wildly. Every new thing that Arletty encounters (the blind art dealer, the vagabond, her dad's apartment) makes it harder to trust her surroundings and Point Dune soon becomes one of cinema's great ghost towns. This is a film that benefits from it's dreamlike atmosphere rather than suffering from it like A Virgin Among The Living Dead. In fact Messiah of Evil could have even been made in response to that film as it shares a plot structure (no, that doesn't mean that everything was just a dream!). The film's plot is similar to H.P. Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth as well, but I tend to see Lovecraft everywhere these days.

The death scenes are handled really well. The scenes where Toni and Laura meet their makers are so superbly handled it's really a shame that more people haven't seen the movie. Like Hitchcock, Huyck does a lot with glances and silence. For example in both scenes there is no music other than what plays from the speakers in the grocery store and the movie theatre. Really great stuff. You could make a case for so many other films ripping this off, it's incredible. The whole notion of a town closing up when it gets dark so the dead can walk the streets? That's The Night of the Seagulls - nevermind that they both end on a day-for-night beach. I also love the ending which I believe is left purposely open ended, something I like but that others consider a weak spot. I like to think that when the Messiah finally shows up that he impregnates Marianna, cause why else would the word sacrifice be used, other than for her to be the prophet of his next appearance, like her father was before her. There are other little things that people chalk up to poor scripting that I chalk up to average open-portal-to-hell behavior, to borrow a phrase. The strange things that confront our heroes are stylish and creepy enough that I think a hack like Lucio Fulci could have easily found inspiration here. He may have had better cinematography and scarier zombies, but he didn't have the better film. The Messiah of Evil may not be a forgotten classic but it's better than just about all of it's peers and is most definitely worth a look. Ok, I'll say it: It's a forgotten classic and it's the best trippy zombie film ever made.

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