A truly cursed relic of Lovecraftian grindhouse schlock, the mid-70s horror curio Messiah of Evil is an experience that feels at once warmly familiar & nightmarishly uncanny. It’s among a rare breed of horror classics like Carnival of Souls, Eyes Without a Face, and Val Lewton’s Cat People that are deceptively obedient to the tones, tropes, and craft of their era, but manage to achieve an unnerving, bone-deep chill once that familiarity lowers your defenses. Yet, it hasn’t yet been showered with the adoring cinephilic praise reserved for those now-canon genre relics. You can approximate a nearly exact equation of what genre pieces were assembled to create its effect; it plays like a post-Romero attempt at adapting “Shadows over Innsmouth” as an American giallo. However, you can’t quite put your finger on how these familiar pieces add up to such an eerie, disorienting experience. That’s just pure black movie magic, the goal all formulaic horrors should strive for but few ever achieve.
This film’s loose dream-logic narrative is constructed through two epistolary accounts: the narrated recollections of a young woman who’s been committed to an insane asylum and the diary of her missing father, which led her to that confinement. The father character is an artist who moved to a secluded seaside town in order to paint in peace, only to mysteriously cut off communication with his family back home while away. His daughter is met with skeptical hostility from the ghoulish, Innsmouth-like townies in the village where he disappeared, but eventually settles into his home and searches for clues to his whereabouts. Surrounded by her father’s art on sinisterly muraled walls and lost in his diary that seemingly documented a descent into madness, she follows the missing artist’s exact path and gradually loses her own grip on reality. She finds some welcome company from fellow outsiders also investigating the town’s paranormal allure, but mostly she & her new friends are dangerously outnumbered by the cannibalistic, ghoulish locals who are protecting some cosmic secret no one can seem to put into words.
In terms of conveying a clear, logical narrative, Messiah of Evil is a total mess – seemingly making shit up on the fly as it bides time between its set-piece scares. This deliberate delay of traditional horror movie payoffs is a blatantly practical tactic for the barebones production to cut financial corners, which often reduces what’s onscreen to a sight that usually tanks cheap-o horrors into total tedium: people endlessly talking in closed rooms. Whether our troubled heroine is reading her father’s journals to herself in voice-over narration or chatting up the traveling throuple of erudite snobs who prove to be her only friends in town, however, Messiah of Evil is somehow never boring. It must be that the writing itself is especially strong. Monologues about “blood moons pulling people towards Hell” and Lovecraftian accounts of hallucinatory beasts & ghouls are so intensely vivid in their imagery & delivery that you don’t have room to notice that the film is saving money by describing these horrors instead of depicting them. It weighs on you like a harrowing stage play, when it so easily could have been corners-cutting lip service.
Luckily, the dialogue doesn’t have to do all the work in unnerving the audience. Messiah of Evil occasionally ventures out of tis spooky-murals artist’s loft locale to stumble through a funhouse of assorted scares. A few sideshow attractions like a ghoulish local slitting an outsider’s throat or gnawing on a live beach rat help space out its more complexly staged set piece scares. When it really invests its time on those larger atmospheric payoffs, the movie has a way of transforming everyday locales—movie theaters, supermarkets, parking lots, etc.—into otherworldly nightmare realms. The actual flesh-eating creatures that pose a threat to all outsiders here aren’t especially distinct from the undead ghouls of Romero’s landmark horror The Night of the Living Dead from just a few years earlier. Yet, their effect on the audience & their impetus to kill are so difficult to put your finger on that calling them “zombies” would be selling them short. Zombies you can figure out & plan to defeat. By contrast, the threats here keep shifting & changing the rules based on the whims of the tone, so that trying to wrap your mind around their nature & vulnerabilities feels like training yourself to slip into a lucid dream.
The married couple who wrote, directed, and produced Messiah of Evil—Gloria Katz & Willard Huyk—later developed a professional relationship with George Lucas that culminated in their swing-for the-fences, career-ending flop in 1986’s Howard the Duck. Whether you want to take that association with Howard the Duck as confirmation that this movie is an unstructured mess, a once-in-a-lifetime miracle of movie magic, or—in my rare case—further proof that Howard the Duck is vastly underappreciated is up you entirely. Personally, I believe Katz & Huyk to have an innate artistic understanding of the subliminal, dreamlike state movies put us in – logic be damned. That sensibility obviously displeased most audiences who caught their money-torching blockbuster, but it might be more widely accessible when rooted in the tradition of cheap-o moody horror. When the missing artist’s journal explains that, ”You’re about to awaken when you dream that you’re dreaming,” the potency of this film’s surreal nightmare logic became vividly clear to me – even if the structure & rhythms of the story it was telling never did. That’s not an easy effect to achieve, and many better-respected horror movies have failed in the attempt, so it’s a shame that Katz & Huyk haven’t received more audible recognition for the feat.