'Messiah of Evil' turns 50: The mess and miracle behind this horror gem

From the minds behind "American Graffiti," "Temple of Doom," and..."Howard the Duck"!
By Jason Adams  on 
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A scene from "Messiah of Evil"
Credit: SGL Entertainment

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"They say that nightmares are dreams perverted."

That’s the opening line of the surreal 1973 supernatural horror film Messiah of Evil, which turns 50 this week. Before the incredible screenwriting team Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz wrote American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (not to mention the notorious flop Howard the Duck, which Huyck also directed), they collaborated on Messiah of Evil, which turned out to be a dream perverted in its own making. 

And yet somehow that perversion works. Like the mix-and-match tale at the heart of Messiah of Evil, it doesn't make much sense how it gets there, but the strange journey turns out to be worth every second, all the same.

Is Messiah of Evil sloppy, surreal, or kinda both?

Describing the plot of Messiah of Evil is a fool's errand, but we'll try to shuffle it into something approaching coherence. Arletty (Marianna Hill) heads to the seaside California town of Point Dune where her father Joseph (Royal Dano), a painter, has been living. Her correspondence with Joseph had become increasingly erratic, and recently dropped off entirely. Arletty is worried, and everything about Point Dune exacerbates her unease.

When she arrives, her father is nowhere to be found. His beach house is abandoned, and her father's gallerist implies Joseph went full cuckoo's nest. But in a weird coincidence  — and there will be many of those — a stranger named Thom (Michael Greer) and his two traveling companions, Laura (Anitra Ford) and Toni (Joy Bang), just arrived in town, and they also happen to be looking for Arletty's father.

Together, this newfound foursome find themselves warned of Point Dune's creepy underbelly by the town drunk Charlie (played by legendary character actor Elisha Cook Jr.). Something about a "blood moon" and Charlie's mother wanting to feed him to the chickens. 

"It was like the redder the moon got up there, the closer the people were being jerked toward Hell," Charlie says.

Put Messiah of Evil with The Fog and Dead & Buried in the Seaside Horror Pantheon.

Before the day is through, Thom and his lady friends will have weaseled their way into staying with Arletty in her father's house, where they search for clues about what happened to him. And Thom, who says with no small amount of ominousness that he has a special interest in folk stories, will seek out his own answers about the "blood moon," not to mention the "dark stranger" who apparently comes along with it, wink wink. 

And the sky will turn redder every night. And the people of Point Dune will begin acting odder and odder as it does. An albino man who likes to eat live beach rats will come and go. A body will wash up in the sand, tangled up in a metal sculpture, which the police will say is Arletty's father, although she has her doubts. Crowds will begin gathering around bonfires at the water's edge and in terrifying packs in town. Their eyes will begin to bleed. 

What Messiah of Evil lacks in sense it more than makes up for in atmospherics.

As odd as all of that sounds, that’s just plot and backstory. There is so much more strangeness fluttering about the film's margins than I could ever begin to summarize. Like the opening scene where some random man who's never mentioned again (and who's played by legendary writer/director Walter Hill) has his throat suddenly slashed open by a teen girl. Or the part where the attendant at the gas station is shooting a gun frantically into the darkness when Arletty pulls up to fuel her tank. Or the story about the survivor of the Donner Party stumbling into town one day...

The fact of the matter is that Messiah of Evil is a mood piece, and it only truly works as such. Its plot is nonsense, with pieces that begin reshuffling themselves the closer you think you are to putting them together. The townspeople turn into a horde of bloodthirsty zombies in their Sunday best, but the rules of how or why are a total mystery, even after a dozen watches. 

Therein lay Messiah of Evil’s simultaneous genius and curse. Because its incomprehensibility is what makes it scary. And it can be very scary indeed, including two sequences (one in a grocery store and one in a movie theater) that rank among the greatest horror scenes ever put on film. But the fact remains that the movie, as it is, is not what it was intended to be.

How was Messiah of Evil made? (And undone?) 

They say that once a film is finished and released, it belongs to the audience; it's out of the filmmaker's hands by then. It becomes what we see in it and how we interpret it. But Messiah of Evil was out of its filmmakers' hands before it could get that far.

In 1973, Huyck and Katz were approached by a producer friend(opens in a new tab) who said he could finance a movie for them to write and direct, the only stipulation being it had to be horror. This was still early on in the direct pipeline of film school to low-budget horror movie to, well, much bigger things. For example, Francis Ford Coppola's Dementia 13 came out in 1963, and Peter Bogdanovich made his debut with 1968's Targets, starring none other than Boris Karloff; by the '70s, both directors were at the forefront of New Hollywood. Huyck and Katz, who were newlyweds fresh out of USC with lots of juice in their tanks, were keen to try out some of their artistic leanings. They loved Antonioni. They said, "Give us two weeks."

All went smoothly for awhile. They shot most of the movie, even. But then, like so much beach rat disappearing down an albino's throat, the money vanished. The key scenes in their script where the story was explained never got filmed. They shopped their footage around to studios, who couldn't slam the door in their faces quick enough. And when a new project popped up – that little something called American Graffiti (opens in a new tab)– the duo moved on.

Only later did they find out that somebody had bought up their footage and added a score to it, and edited it into the movie we see today. It got trotted out over the years with several other titles, such as The Second Coming and Dead People. The producers were sued by George A. Romero for calling it Return of the Living Dead for awhile. In 1984, with Temple of Doom under their belt, Huyck referred to Messiah of Evil as "a real bowwow."(opens in a new tab)

Why Messiah of Evil matters today

Messiah of Evil began its journey towards critical reassessment when it was released on DVD in 2009. Since then, critics and genre fans alike have grown to appreciate it as an accidental cult masterpiece, alongside similarly haunted films like Bob Clark's Deathdream(opens in a new tab) and John Hancock's Let's Scare Jessica to Death(opens in a new tab).

These films have in common a deep sense of cultural unease and dread that reflects the cultural milieu of the Vietnam War era. As the awful truth of the war permeated TV screens, traumatized soldiers and their dead comrades were shipped back home to confront America with its denialism. Watching these movies is like seeing seven layers of wallpaper torn off the perfectly appointed American dream, with chaos and despair right there shrieking from underneath.

How much of Messiah of Evil's strange vibe was intentional by its makers and how much was accidental due to behind-the-scenes drama we'll never really know. And it ultimately doesn't matter, as the product we have on our hands right here and right now is a delectable and truly unique piece of art that never stops revealing new wavelengths to plumb and new chasms to fall into. 

Like that fashion mainstay of its moment, Messiah of Evil is the mood ring of motion pictures – give yourself over to its groove and it'll groove you right back, baby.

How to watch: Messiah of Evil is now streaming on Shudder.(opens in a new tab)

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Jason Adams

Jason Adams is a freelance entertainment writer at Mashable. He lives in New York City and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic who also writes for Pajiba, The Film Experience, AwardsWatch, and his own personal site My New Plaid Pants. He's extensively covered several film festivals including Sundance, Toronto, New York, SXSW, Fantasia, and Tribeca. He's a member of the LGBTQ critics guild GALECA. He loves slasher movies and Fassbinder and you can follow him on Twitter at @JAMNPP.

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