Give credit where credit is due, husband and wife team, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, wrote two of the most entertaining films of their generation, George Lucas’ American Graffiti and Steven Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom”. Now, let’s step back a second and immediately take some credit away from them, as they also wrote and directed the disastrous “Howard The Duck” and “Best Defense”, the 1984 “comedy” that almost singlehandedly destroyed Eddie Murphy’s career before it started. Now that we have established that you have two very talented people who occasionally make some serious errors in judgment, let’s get to their only horror film, a film that despite having some shortcomings, is a surprisingly brilliant surrealistic horror film, Messiah Of Evil.
“Messiah” opens intensely with a frightened man running down the street, we aren’t sure who or what he is running from, suddenly the running man is rescued by an innocent-looking young girl who allows him into her backyard. As the man collapses from exhaustion, the girl of course leans over and unemotionally slices his throat. After watching “Messiah of Evil”, I came to learn that the dead man is another iconic American director of the 1970s, Walter Hill, a friend of Gloria and Willard’s, who was also pretty busy in 1973, having just written John Huston’s “The MacIntosh Man.” Why kill Walter so early? Maybe Katz and Huyck saw into the future and wanted to stop Hill before he made “Another 48 Hours”.
After setting the tone of the film with such an opening scene, you are hammered with the sight of an over lit long hall, where the film’s protagonist, the ethereally beautiful, Arletty (Marianna Hill) is wandering in an almost dreamlike state. After a fairly horrific stop at a cadaver filled gas station (just a bit worse than an average South Jersey rest stop) Arletty soon makes her way to coastal town of Point Dune, California to visit her painter/father but instead finds just his empty, eerie home that is complete with pop-art murals of straight ahead suited people. She also finds her father’s diary but only reads enough to realize that dad doesn’t want his little girl trying to find him. So now if that piece of information mixed with the opening scenes hasn’t tipped you off yet, things in Point Dune are not too Norman Rockwell.
The Awesomely Intense Trailer For “Messiah”
To make matters infinitely more scary, Arletty meets a sort of now-era sophisto named Thom (a stoic Michael Greer) and his two groupies/traveling companions, the savagely hip 70s sexy Toni (Joy Bang) and Laura (Anitra Ford) who are interviewing the clairvoyant hobo, Charlie (sure, every town has one, they just don’t care to interview them) about the upcoming weirdness involving the centennial return of “the dark stranger,” who will inspire the town into a murderous frenzy. Charlie also warns Arletty about her father who has become one of the town’s crazies (I use the word “crazies” as they act the closest to the villains of the same-named Romero film.) All this weirdness gets to Toni and Laura, and they split the company of the well-coifed Thom to only meet with some really well filmed giallo-style ends. I must say that these scenes are the visual horror gems of the film; sensational buildups to a stark zombie-like finishes. I say “zombie-like” because I feel that our ghouls are more vampire than zombie but their ends look like the work of cannibalistic consumption. OK, too geeky, the point is, they’re dead. Of course, the “stranger,” (or possibly the titled “messiah,” were not sure here) a kind of H.P. Lovecraftesque demonic minister from the days of the Donner Party, has now returned and yes, all hell has broken loose. The police arrive and fire at the crowd of ghouls but fail in stopping the onslaught. The stranger/messiah/vampire/zombie bites Thom, so Thom and Arletty finally do the right thing and split for the coast.
Without giving away the ending of the film, what does transpire is left to the viewers interpretation. Did this actually happen and the trauma broke Arletty so badly that she ended up in a sanitarium? Or, is this entire film the creation of a woman whose mind has decayed while in a sanitarium? And what was the political statement that Katz and Huyck are making here? The one thing that Romero, the father of the modern zombie has taught us is that zombies show up hungry, they are also showing up with a defined political agenda. We know that the older well-suited, square ghouls in “Messiah” have recruited Arletty’s failed artist father to their ranks, but they only seem to be hungry to eat the hip, young people; Thom, Arletty, Toni, and Laura. Was this a post-hippie statement that the establishment was coming after the remains of the Love Generation?
Though I am not sure of its underlying purpose, what I am sure about is that “Messiah of Evil” remains as one of the few real giallo-inspired films produced in the U.S. from that time. A film that purposely does not contain an ounce of humor, and is unrelenting in its grim tone, a rarity for its time. It is also a testament to writer/directors Katz and Huyck, who in 1973 could simultaneously fill our hearts with joy, giving us the iconic California film, “American Graffiti”, and at the same time give us a very different trip to California with “Messiah of Evil”.
2 thoughts on “The Writers of American Graffiti Direct a Lovecraftian Giallo: 1973’s “Messiah of Evil””
“Without giving away the ending of the film, what does transpire is left to the viewers interpretation. Did this actually happen and the trauma broke Arletty so badly that she ended up in a sanitarium? Or, is this entire film the creation of a woman whose mind has decayed while in a sanitarium?”
I’d say the latter. I can’t believe the vampires would have let Arletty live and just be taken to a sanatorium, that is taken into custody by “normal” living people.
It was a genuinely creepy film, with an emotionally charged ending, yet somehow I felt reassured thinking that it had all been in her imagination… Seeing those two doctors in white robes talking with each other in the hospital’s park, and seeing Arletty paint calmly in that outdoor pavillion, was an unexpected way to shake the heavy, lugubrious atmosphere that had been piling up until then… Yet I also felt melancholic.
That is a great read on the film. Lending more evidence to your read is that the film begins in the sanitarium as well which adds to the theory that the whole thing is a product of Arletty’s mind.