Until recently the only way to see Messiah of Evil seemed to be a horribly washed out public domain print that was missing the film’s opening scene. Thankfully Code Red restored it and put it out on DVD and Blu Ray and that restored print eventually found its way to Shudder. And along the way, it’s started to get the recognition it deserves.
Messiah of Evil opens with the stabbing of an unknown man played by Walter Hill who would go on to direct The Warriors, Southern Comfort, 48 Hours and Streets of Fire among others. Then we see Arletty (Marianna Hill, High Plains Drifter, Blood Beach) wandering the corridors of an asylum telling us in voiceover of an evil that’s coming for her, and all of us as well.
Arletty is heading to Point Dune to see her father Joseph (Royal Dano, Electra Glide in Blue, Killer Klowns from Outer Space). He’s secluded himself there to work on his paintings after the death of his wife. But he’s dropped out of touch after a series of ominous-sounding letters.
After a creepy encounter at a gas station, she reaches town and finds people don’t want to talk about her father. She does find out that Thom (Michael Greer, Fortune and Men’s Eyes, The Rose) and his two “travelling companions” Toni (Joy Bang, Pretty Maids All in a Row, Night of the Cobra Woman) and Laura (Anitra Ford, Invasion of the Bee Girls, The Longest Yard). Thom is interested in a local folktale about the blood moon, something they’re all going to find out way too much about.
The first film from the writer/director team of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz who would go on to write American Graffiti and Howard the Duck, Messiah of Evil is a strange blend of 70s arthouse and zombie horror. A mix that prevented it from catching on with audiences despite being released under several titles including Dead People and Return of the Living Dead with an ad campaign so badly ripped off of Dawn of the Dead that lawyers had to be involved.
With frequent voiceovers by both Hill and, by way of journal entries, Dano and dream-like style and pacing Messiah of Evil resembles a European film more than the domestic horror films of the time. Which would make sense as Huyck and Katch claim to have been influenced by films from the continent and to have been unaware of the likes of Carnival of Souls or Night of the Living Dead.
Whatever its influences, Messiah of Evil is an atmospheric nightmare punctuated by several memorable scenes. The ones in which Laura enters a supermarket to find the townsfolk resting on raw meat and with Toni in a darkened theatre are usually mentioned. But the early scene at the gas station and another with a truck driver (Bennie Robinson) with odd appetites will also stick in your mind.
There’s not much in the way of gore, although there is an impressive death by fire from back in the days before CGI turned such scenes into bad jokes. There is a fair amount of action, most of the foot chase variety throughout the film, but mostly in the final half-hour. For most of its length, Messiah of Evil is content to be a slow-burning, strange Lovecraftian tale, set along the same stretch of coast as Antonio Bay and Potter’s Bluff, the West Coast’s answer to Innsmouth and Arkham.
While there really hasn’t been anything similar made in the USA, you can see the influence of Messiah of Evil in later films. The beachfront cult of The Deep Ones and the townies of Dead and Buried for example can both trace their roots to this film.
Its copyright has lapsed putting it in the public domain, so there are several sources for copies of Messiah of Evil. But as I’ve mentioned the quality of the print that’s in all of the 50 movie packs and is frequently found on YouTube is terrible. It’s worth seeing the restored print if you can. Shudder currently offers it, I’m not sure if any other streaming platforms do. There is at least one authorized YouTube stream of the restored print available and it’s linked below.