Messiah of Evilrecommended viewing

Warning: zombies may be intensely flammable
★★★★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1973
Director: 
Willard Huyck
Starring: 
Marianna Hill, Michael Greer, Anitra Ford, Joy Bang, Royal Dano
The Setup: 
Half zombie movie, half vampire movie… all interesting.
Discussion: 

You know, does everything really NEED to make sense? Certainly not in a horror film, and certainly not when you’ve got creepy atmosphere, killer suspense sequences, decent actors, and stunning visuals… all of which this film has in spades.

This is another GEM from my 50 Chilling Classics boxed set [a mere $20!], and is one of those things that makes you thank the big guy [or girl, or bunny, or whatever] for this amazing set! It’s incredible. Anyway, so we begin with this guy running from something down a street while we hear this overwrought 70s ballad, “For One To Love,” performed by Raun MacKinnon. This song, also reprised at the end, seems to have no relation to the action of the movie. The guy ducks into a pool where a young lass is waiting coyly. He decides to take a breather, and she comes over like she’s gonna plant a big wet one on him, and slashes his throat! Then: credits, part one!

We now see the first of a great many stunning visuals as this woman walks at us slowly down a long, overexposed hallway. She talks about how she’s crazy—or IS she?—and finally emits an ear-piercing scream. Then: credits, part two! We then continue the woman’s voice-over, but we have now flashed back to her before she was institutionalized. She’s driving into this town to locate her vanished father, and stops into this gas station [it’s the dead of night]. The attendant is shooting a gun at something unseen out in the darkness… disturbing! He gives her a fill-up, but then this pickup with this creepy albino goon shows up [I know, I am SO outraged about the portrayal of albinos as evil villains!]. The goon has two corpses in the back of his truck, so the attendant tries to get Arletty [that’s our heroine] to go away. By the way, she is headed to Point Dune, which he also warns her away from, and we’ve also found out that at some point in the recent past, the moon has turned ‘blood red.’ She leaves, and the gas station attendant is killed, symbolized by all the lights in the station slowly being turned off. I thought he was just trying to preserve our nation’s dwindling non-renewable resources, but no, he was being carved up and hung from that hydraulic car-lift thingy gas stations have.

Now, Arletty is played by Marianna Hill, who looked SO much like Casey from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls [and I was SO hoping it was her… I love Casey!], but, in a surprise almost as great, it was the same woman who played the witchy, creepy Germaine in The Baby! BONUS! Arletty, by the way, is the name of the single-named actress who was the great beauty of Children of Paradise. Anyway, she walks around her father’s apartment going “Father? Father? Father? Father?” while we are unsettled by the strange murals covering all of the walls, which will result in a lot of interesting visuals throughout the movie. She doesn’t find him, but she finds his diary, in which he describes slowly being taken over by some force or other, and going insane. The whole movie is filled with Arletty’s voice-over alternating with that of her father.

She asks around town, and after a creepy scene with a blind shopkeeper, is led to a hotel room. She walks in while a man and woman are busy recording this old man talking about how creepy things are and how all this happened after the moon turned blood red. I was TOTALLY hooked on this movie when suddenly, in the midst of this mysterious scene, this SLUT walks out of the bathroom while rubbing her tits and says in a bored tone: “I’m really hungry.” Now, I do not throw the word ‘slut’ around lightly: this woman is a WANTON TRAMP in THE funniest way. The actress who brings this creation to joyous life is named JOY BANG, by the way. Okay, are you going to stop reading and run to get this film right now?! You totally should.

So for some reason the man who was recording the old guy [Thom] and his two molls got kicked out of the hotel, and pretty much just invite themselves to stay at Arletty’s father’s house. Thom [Michael Greer, fresh from gay prison drama Fortune and Men’s Eyes] is traveling with Toni [Ms. Bang] and Laura, played by Anitra Ford, of Invasion of the Bee Girls! Holy FUCK does this movie have a pedigree! And—I guess I should just tell you now—it’s written and directed by a co-writer of American Grafitti and the director of Howard the Duck! Laura is quite a vamp and is clad in red. We find out that she used to do “shows with snakes” seconds before Toni throws down her artichoke and says “Yuck! This is shitty tasting!” Laura predicts that before too long Arletty will be in bed with Thom, and the three of them all do seem a little sinister at this point. Is Thom the evil messiah of the title?

So Thom comes on to Arletty, who has recently unzipped his shirt, causing him to say “You don’t just unzip a man and then say goodnight,” which makes us think we’re gonna get some sizzling coercive sex, but then, one second later he says, “You are tired, aren’t you?” So then Laura is all pissed that Thom is gonna boink Arletty [at some point], and she splits. She’s not gone long before she is offered a ride by the albino goon in the pickup. She takes a long, lingering look at the FOUR CORPSES IN THE BACK THAT HE HAS ARRANGED SITTING IN AN UPRIGHT POSITION, says “what the hell,” and hops in. The guy soon turns psycho, eating a live mouse right in front of her, and she seems SHOCKED that he’s a bit loony. She asks him to let her out [and he very nicely does], she looks at the CORPSES arranged in the back, then mutters “Jesus!” as though she’s just seen a particularly provocative bumper sticker. I don’t know… maybe living in the city has made me too fearful of my fellow man, but when I see corpses, particularly corpses in some sort of ARRANGEMENT, I… I don’t know, I guess I just tend to withdraw into myself. But I guess I have issues relating to trust.

SPOILERS > > >
So Laura, in the first of the film’s two major stalking sequences, wanders through this deserted town, and finally to this grocery store, which is all lit up, but empty. She wanders the deserted aisles, then suddenly turns a corner and there’s nine people eating raw, bloody meat out of her grocer’s cooler! They all see her and come after her, and soon she’s history, although we don’t actually see anything. This is your first hint that this is going to be very much like a zombie movie, without actually BEING a zombie movie.

Then there’s someone stalking around Arletty’s Dad’s apartment… he turns on the light. She wakes, is freaked out, and goes to Thom’s room, where she is invited into bed, which pisses Toni off, and she stalks out of the room. The next day they have supposedly found the body of Arletty’s father… but she knows that it isn’t him. She also sees that she has been bitten behind her ear.

Then we have the second and more effective of our major stalking scenes, when Toni goes out to the movies. I think you’ll all appreciate the humor of the fact that the movie advertised on the marquee is Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. She walks into the largest and very reddest movie theater ever, and sits down. The movie she ends up watching is definitely NOT Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye [a Cagney film], as it seems to star Sammy Davis, Jr. in some sort of western, and just gets more dischordant from there. Some amusement can be had from trying to imagine all the disparate snatches of film we see as all being from the same movie. Anyway, Huyck goes all The Birds on us as zombie people slowly start filling up the seats behind the oblivious Toni, and it’s mildly creepy as they do, but gets scary as Toni begins to realize what’s happening, and abruptly turns genuinely terrifying as she tries to escape.

Meanwhile Arletty is slowly turning into a zombie person herself, which means that she has a wound in her neck, bleeds from her eyes, and cannot feel pain. She’s feeling a little nauseous, then pukes up a bunch of bugs and lizards! Which is actually pretty creepy, you gotta give them points for that one. Then—dad’s home! He explains that 100 years ago—and we go ahead and flash back to 100 years ago—this hunky dude with Western attire and a big yummy stache [the ‘dark stranger’] came along and around that time the moon turned red and real bad things happened, eventually he just walked into the sea, to emerge 100 years from then, which is… you guessed it. What’s special about this guy is not explained. Did he make a pact with Satan or something? We’ll never know. But to the best of my knowledge, he is the messiah of evil that the title refers to. Anyway, so Dad freaks out and tries to kill Arletty! Then he paints himself blue! Then he REALLY tries to kill her! And then we discover that zombies are actually intensely flammable, as Arletty merely brushes her dad with a torch and POOF! He’s head-to-toe in flames. Wow!

Then Arletty goes to have a chat with Thom, who speaks to her as a wound slowly opens up in his neck. Of course, we can’t be sure whether this was a result of exceptionally good or exceptionally bad makeup, but it’s effective. Then all of a sudden zombies break in through the skylight! So Arletty and Thom run and end up on the beach, and are forced into the ocean. They’re going to swim to another town, but all of a sudden Arletty looks around and Thom is gone! This is actually pretty freaky, and then she starts to go under, and the screen fades out as she says “…and the last thing I saw was the setting sun.” Even though I believe it just WAS night and dawn occurred like 30 minutes ago… or maybe this is the point? Maybe it’s the apocalypse! And the sun is setting immediately after rising!

Anyway, you’re like “Huh, I guess that was an okay ending. Arletty died,” and no sooner do you say that when it fades back in on her reading a book, saying “They wouldn’t let me die…” but fear not, it’s still almost over. They make an offering of her and present her to the Dark Stranger, looking a little less attractive this time, as he comes out of the sea, where he’s been for the past 100 years. You know, all that salt water can have a very damaging effect, particularly on sensitive skin. The Dark Stranger tells Arletty a story which makes her go crazy, and that’s why she’s in this institution. I guess she got off lucky; usually these evil messiahs want your virginity or something. Don’t ask me how I know—the memory’s too painful, even after all these years.

But one last thing! We have a reprise of Arletty walking down the overexposed hallway in the mental institution, but this time there are, periodically, subliminal single frames of her figure, a la Fight Club, that look like blots on the film.

Now, it’s quite possible that this film means absolutely nothing, but those blots, doubling Arletty’s figure, give me a hint at what may be happening. Remember that Arletty is crazy when we first meet her, wandering down the hallway, and this movie is her story. Now go to the end when we see her walking down the same hallway, but her figure is sometimes doubled by a half-seen figure, then remember that the Dark Stranger told her a story that made her go crazy, and the film is Arletty telling us her story. Because of all this doubling, it made me think that the entire film is her crazy vision / story.

Her father is missing. The moon, traditional symbol of femininity, has turned blood red, which could be associated with menstruation. At this time a man comes out of the ocean, another traditional feminine symbol, coming out of the ocean usually meaning birth, and at these times everyone in town goes crazy. So she meets up with Thom [who is blond, a light stranger] who is traveling with two very sexual women. Arletty comes between both women and the man, and they both split from him and eventually die. Then the father comes back, but he has changed, and attacks his daughter, forcing her to kill him. She and Thom are forced into the ocean, and Thom disappears into the ocean. Then the Dark Stranger comes out of the ocean [opening the possibility that he is Thom, transformed], and she is offered as a bride / sacrifice to him. He tells her a story [putting a creation in her mind where it will grow, symbolizing pregnancy] and she goes crazy. It’s all very loose [actually, I’m kind of interested in watching parts of it again now that these ideas have occurred to me], but there definitely seems to be this content about doubling, [the good father / the bad father, the light stranger / the dark stranger, the blond and brunette women friends of Thom], lots of symbols of masculinity and femininity, and lots of transformation, much linked to creation, sexuality and birth. Woah, pretty heady! I am SO gonna watch this shit again and report back. Sometime.
< < < SPOILERS END

Regardless of whether it makes sense or not, this is a really intriguing watch. Many of the individual scenes are very creepy or outright scary, and there are a number of visually stunning shots throughout. I watched this in two parts, and in reading my notes for the first half, I was like ‘woah, this is really interesting,’ but then as I watched the second half I recalled how the reality of the film often misses that a little bit—meaning that the ideas are better than the execution. But I was fascinated and on the edge of my seat all the way through, and now the prospect of watching it again to puzzle out some of the meanings and soak up some of the details seems like a fun project rather than a chore.

Should you watch it: 

Yes! It’s bizarre and very loose, but is scary, atmospheric, and visually arresting.