Vincent Price Does Shakespeare In The Red! 1973’s Theatre Of Blood

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Theater-of-Blood_jpg

Oh Dear, a Bit More Than a “Pound Of Flesh”

I guess I have always loved Vincent Price in the same way that so many others do: in the ghoulish Edgar Allen Poe reciting kind of way.  Even we fans of Mr. Price sometimes forget that he didn’t start in films that dripped blood. Sure, early on, he starred in a few horror films such as “Tower of London” with Karloff in 1939 and in “The Invisible Man Returns” in 1940, but Vincent was also an exceptional character actor in film noirs like Otto Preminger’s Academy Award winning “Laura” and “The Web,” starring against Edmund O’Brien. Things changed for Vincent after 1953 when “House of Wax” became a huge hit in the middle of the 3-D fad, and then it was almost all horror after that with the success of “The Fly” and of course “The Return of The Fly” and many more Hollywood horror films from that decade. Come the 1960s and Roger Corman getting his hands on Price for AIP,  Price was locked into a feast on the terror train as he made several adaptations of the aforementioned Poe with Corman including, “The Pit and The Pendulum,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “The Raven.” In fact Vincent and Roger made no less than eight adaptations of Poe’s work, all fairly low budget but always coming in above expectations courtesy of Price in the lead. I have often wondered if Vincent enjoyed being the king of horror as so many people have called him over the years.  After all, Price studied Fine Arts at the University of London and began his stage career in Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre, so when I heard that he attempts Shakespeare in “Theatre Of Blood,” I was intrigued. Could Price go back to his roots and perform Shakespeare on screen after almost forty years of stabbing zombies? Well, I am thrilled to write “yes,” but you know that Shakespeare with Vincent Price is going to come with a bit of deliberately served ham and a hefty body count.

Price plays Edward Lionheart, a “serious” actor who attempts suicide by diving into the Thames but is secretly rescued by a pack of riverside hobos. Lionheart’s suicide attempt comes after an evening when he is humiliated by The London Theatre Critics Circle who trash a series of Shakespearean plays that he has just produced, and as far as the theatre community is concerned, Lionheart jumped to his death and is nevermore. With his death a fabrication, our thespian Edward, like so many of the heroes contained in Bill Shakespeare’s works is craving revenge and, with his newfound homeless friends in tow as his band of brothers, sets on the critics who have scorned him by giving them a performance of “The Bard” that they will never forget because it will be the last thing they will ever see. You see, Edward isn’t going to give them a humorous scene from “Twelfth Night” or “Much Ado About Nothing.” No, when Edward performs a scene from “The Merchant Of Venice,” he will bring in our critic and actually take his “pound of flesh” in this translation as payment for the bad reviews that he has always received from his now kidnapped critics in some fairly graphic scenes that come to life in a way that I’m sure would’ve made even Shakespeare himself shudder a bit. The plays are then acted out for Lionheart’s most attentive audience of all, The Theatre of Blood which is his adorning collection of tramps.

Yes, all of your favorite Shakespearean nasties are here for you to witness in living color. One envious critic is conned by Lionheart into murdering his wife just like Othello murders his bride Desdemona. Another critic gets the Julius Caesar Ides of March treatment in the form of a dozen knife-wielding hobos. An alcoholic critic is drowned in a vat of wine and dragged through a cemetery by wild horses à la Richard III. With the bodies of the recently critical reviewers piling up and armed with the suspicion that our non-dead thespian might be behind the killings, our comical Inspector Boot (Milo O’Shea) and Sergeant Dogge (Eric Sykes) scour the streets of London to locate Lionheart, starting with his faithful daughter, Edwina (an always fetching Diana Rigg), a make-up artist. She is defiant in the face of the law which isn’t a surprise as she is in league with her father and his artistic vendetta. Alas, she convinces the last surviving critic to visit the Theatre Of Blood, setting up the final scene of demented pathos.

Original Trailer For Theatre Of Blood

Director Douglas Hickox commands the entirety of the film with a bold vigor and rarely matched lunacy and comedy that keeps the narrative flowing with ease. The scenes of gore are, again, a bit tough to take at points, but those moments are needed to push the comedic back into the horrific. Riggs, O’ Shea, and Sykes are wonderful in their supporting roles, but this truly is the role that Vincent Price was born to play. Outside of the gory mayhem that only the haunting Price could bask in unlike no other, there are the many moments of joy that seem to fly out of Price when performing the myriad of Shakespearean characters that he must play in “Theatre Of Blood.” I had to check myself to see if what I was witnessing was an Edward Lionheart, who gleefully has finally found the audience he was always looking for, or screen actor Vincent Price, who finally gets to read soliloquies that he has always dreamed of performing on screen, even if they are played for a laugh and with some amount of cinematic blood on his hands.

1978’s “The Manitou”…Or, How Many Genres Can We Fit Into One Bad Horror Film

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Manitou

“Mommy, why am I in space?”

The original tagline for 1978’s “The Manitou” went something like this…Evil Does Not Die…It Waits To Be Re-born.  But I’m thinking….

“The new film from the director of the “Jaws’ ripoff, “Grizzly,” comes a horror, space odyssey, Native American, love story kind of thing with Tony Curtis.”

Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg) has something or someone growing in her neck and it’s up to a team of doctors, her carny fortunetelling lover/friend (Tony Curtis) and shaman, Johnny Singing Rock (Michael Ansara) to save her! Still swimming in the wake of “The Exorcist,” which unfortunately was responsible for an endless sea of Satanic-possession horror film clones from “The Omen” onward, is “The Manitou” an almost inconceivably bad film that attempts to cash in on so many popular 1970s film genres at once, you begin to lose track about midway through the plot. Try and follow me on this one.

Our victim, Karen Tandy, lives in San Francisco, is kind of cute, and has a huge lump on her neck that could be cancerous but cancers rarely have their own heart and lungs. This baffles our crack team of doctors and they plan on operating immediately but not before allowing Karen to wander around the cable car town like an old Rice A Roni ad for a couple of days first. She descends on the Munstersesque apartment of Harry Erskine (Curtis), a Tarot Card reader and amateur psychic who spends the bulk of his days bilking old ladies out of their inheritance. Karen turns to our still adorable Harry for help and a bit of slap and tickle as she needs to know why she has a fetus gestating in her gullet. Harry consults the cards and pulls the “death card”  (which you know in Tarot terms doesn’t mean actual “death) but lies to Karen anyway to calm her and perhaps loosen her panties up a bit. They tango and while she sleeps off her bed romp, Karen utters the phrase “Pana Wichy Saratoo” which sounds all mystical, so that springs our Harry into action as a paranormal investigator.

Meanwhile in the surgical theater, traditional medical science fails, as the neck fetus begins to control the hands of our surgeon, making him cut into himself.  This is no normal neck fetus here, this thing has all kinds of mojojojo, and now our doctor must consult his super computer for answers. Back in the mystical realm, Harry has now gone off to see out mediums to séance the hell out of Karen’s neck to get her all OK again, but of course that fails as well. So while Karen lies in her hospital bed, the lump has grown into the size of a Billy Barty midget and is looking for a ripping exit. Frustrated, Harry gets the tip from another carny reject (played by a post-Rocky Burgess Meredith) that “Pana Wichy Saratoo” is Native American for “thing that lives in white woman” (actually “my death foretells my return”), and so Harry is off to the reservation to get himself the best Native American shaman that money can buy, and that shaman is Johnny Singing Rock.

“Manitou” Trailer From 1978

Johnny warns Harry that the “Evil One” is coming and that nothing in his white man world will stop him so Harry offers Johnny a monster load of cash to leave the reservation and battle the creature living in his maybe girlfriend’s neck. But they might be too late; as they head towards the hospital, the big moment occurs, and at least thirty percent of the special effects budget goes ripping out of Karen’s back and thus, the Misquamacus, is born. It is an ugly looking spud, and when Johnny gets a good look at him, well he’s pretty sure that the tiny terror will kill them all. What follows is a rapid blending of genres that goes so quickly that if you can stop giggling for a moment, you will see about four or five of them speed by your bewildered eyes. You get the hospital drama of course, but for a bonus you also get an “Exorcist-like” de-possession ritual, the downtrodden Native American soliloquy to evoke white man’s shame a la “Soldier Blue,” and an all-out “Star-Wars” laser battle between the “Manitou” (the spiritual and fundamental life force understood by Algonquian groups of Native Americans which this film reduces into more Star Wars gimmickry) of the white man’s technology and Misquamamcus in space no less. This final fight scene is all so impressive as it seems that some producer who must have really appreciated Girdler’s “Grizzly” sank some real bucks into the final showdown. Somewhere lost in this of course is the fact that the white man, triumphs over the Native American again and at the end we are supposed to bask in the joy of Tony and Karen sharing a cuddle while the savage’s spirit dies another death.  Oh well.

After a career of directing some pretty awful knockoffs and even a blackploitation film (Pam Grier’s Sheba, Baby), “The Manitou” thankfully became Girdler’s final film.  At least with “The Manitou” he can say that he directed a film in almost every genre.

From Dirty Harry To Messy Diapers: Ted Post’s 1973 Infantilism Fantasy Film “The Baby”

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“No, I think that it’s your turn to change “Baby.”

For his output in 1973, Ted Post may go down as having the single most wildly eclectic year for an American director.  He scored a huge hit that year with “Magnum Force,” the second of Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” series about the somewhat racist San Francisco cop who shoots a lot of bad guys but still ends up pissing off his captain. Though critically panned, “Magnum Force” ended the year outgrossing the original film in the series by a bunch. Ted also directed a young hunky Don Johnson and Don’s soon to be mother-in-law, Tippi Hedren, that same year in The Harrad Experiment, a pseudo-serious sexploitation take on the best selling novel of the same name about a Dr. Kinsey inspired college where students are encouraged to do the horizontal cha cha. Much to no one’s surprise, “The Harrad Experiment” went flaccid at the box office.  So, if you think that the two films I just referenced are wildly apart in themes, then allow me to introduce you to the third film that Mr. Post’s directed in 1973, a torrid tale of forced infantilism entitled, “The Baby.”

At the core of “The Baby” is bright young social worker Ann Gentry (Anjanette Comer) a dedicated young woman who gets the stunningly suburban Wadsworth family as her case. The Wadsworths have a “mother” for the ages (Ruth Roman); her two oversexed daughters, Germaine (Marianna Hill) and Alba (Susanne Zenor) and their brother Baby (David Manzy), a grown man in diapers who is enabled by the Wadsworths to live in a state of perpetual newborn. Ann’s response, being that she is a seemingly normal state worker who soon realizes that Baby’s disfunction is not physical but conditional, is to get Baby some therapy so that he can stop sucking his thumb and pooping himself in his massive crib. A crazy idea indeed, but mother always knows best and soon mother Wadsworth  puts an end to Ann’s wild idea of turning her son into a grownup who could potentially leave the home and have a life of his own or at least a son that doesn’t need his bum bum talced thrice daily. I guess if our hero Ann investigated a bit further she could’ve had Baby legally taken away from the Wadworths, what with his sisters occasionally supplying Baby with sexual enticement and the odd poke from a cattle prod.  No, this isn’t just maternal instinct gone Munchausen syndrome, it’s more like a reversal of Baby Jane done during the feminism movement. By 1973, the Vietnam war had been going on for over a decade, and women finally were expressing a desire to be something more than a baby machine. Most importantly, an entire generation of men had been taken away, and I guess the ones that were left to look after the women weren’t seen as the epitome of the manly man, and thus we have it’s most extreme example, Baby.

You would think that all of the above activities in “The Baby” would define it as a dark comedy. I mean, we are talking about a draft aged male prancing around in diapers while a family of almost human Stepfordesque women simultaneously nurture and torment our grown infant into further regression, but you never feel okay enough to laugh at this because somewhere in all of the exaggerated moments is the horrifying thought that this behavior shown on Baby most likely didn’t start last week, and that it is a systematic routine of going back to Baby’s actual infancy. You suddenly think back to Alba’s freewheeling use of the cattle prod on Baby as being done on an actual newborn, and the goings on don’t exactly bring one to giggles. If director Post’s goal was to show a new generation of feminist women who look at a child as an albatross, then the point is well made here in a frenetically unfunny way. You have Mrs. Wadsworth as the matriarch who hails from a past generation, a woman can only see herself as a mother and her young daughters who are reviled by the thought of motherhood. Even our young social worker Ann, who appears loving and concerned is hiding a pretty big skeleton in her closet as well.

“The Baby” 1973 Trailer

A scene that truly brings home the notion that Mrs. Wadsworth is beyond seeing herself as a sexual being and just a mother as any woman would from her generation is the birthday party for Baby. Mrs. Wadsworth gets a ton of attention from the men at the party (who by the way don’t seem remotely bothered to be there to celebrate the birth of man baby), but she soon shrugs off that attention as she remains mommy, first, second, and third. After a decade of young men going off to Vietnam and not coming back or coming back broken, Mrs. Wadsworth has created her own version of the perfect man. A “man” who will always need her, and one who is going to be with her for ever and ever. “The Baby” was promoted as horror in the same way that Larry Cohen’s baby-gone-psycho film, “It’s Alive” was promoted a year later. And although “The Baby” doesn’t pack the visceral punch as director Cohen’s film, it still has enough cringeworthy moments to nestle it firmly into that genre more than just pure satire. I guess that generation had lots to fear from the newborn, whether that newborn be big or small. As for this generation, I immediately wondered if “The Baby” would play well as midnight cult film or would a screening end up like it did in our home, with confused looks and muffled giggles and a bit more than a little concern for why this film was made in the first place.

More than the feminism movement, America’s participation in Vietnam effected almost every film genre from action, to romance, to yes, the family horror dramas as is the case with “The Baby.”  A few years later, our director Ted Post to a look at the beginning of our involvement in Vietnam when he directed “Go Tell The Spartans,” a film about a US Army major, played by Burt Lancaster, who goes to South Vietnam in the early 1960s as an advisor who immediately begins to understand that our growing presence there would be a futile effort that would just get a lot of Americans killed. Perhaps it was our major who had a talk with with Mrs. Wadsworth that encouraged her to go into the eternal-baby making business?

Bob Clark, Director of “A Christmas Story,” Gives Us a Soldier’s Horrific Homecoming from Vietnam: 1972’s “Deathdream.”

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“Dead of Night” (Deathdream) Original Poster from 1972

I could easily dedicate this blog to just “post-Night of The Living Dead zombie films of the 1970s” as the genre was simply flooded after the cult film success of the Romero classic that defined the word zombie for decades to come. In fact to show how niche the genre got, just last week I reviewed the sublime and campy 1977 underwater Nazi zombie film by Ken Weiderhorn, “Shockwaves,” about a group of extremely loyal soldiers (they’re dead) of Adolf who still live and fight for the Third Reich while vacationing in the Caribbean. Someone else who definitely took inspiration from Romero was director Bob Clark, who knocked out a couple of rare underrated films in that genre, 1972’s “Dead of Night” (Deathdream) and 1973’s “Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things,” before bizarrely going off to make the seminal holiday film, “A Christmas Story” and the equally seminal but repulsive ten sex comedy, “Porky’s.”

“Deathdream” could easily be lumped into another genre that was also quite overloaded during this time period, the misery the returning Vietnam veteran film. The intense drama of those Vietnam era films is very much in place in “Deathdream,” with the caliber of acting from two of its leads, John Marley and Lynn Carlin, who were last seen together in Cassavetes “Faces” carrying much of the sadness of this horrific and well thought out film. It is the story of a US Soldier, Andy Brooks (Richard Backus), who is shot and killed in Vietnam, and as he lies dying, he hears his mother’s plea to “come back home.” The family receives Andy’s official death notice from another soldier, but his mom Christine (Lynn Carlin) still believes in her heart that the message is a lie and someday her son will come home. Unfortunately, Christine is right and Andy is on his way home, but Andy has been changed by the war; he rarely speaks, and for some unknown reason, he murders and drains the blood out of a truck driver who has kindly given Andy a lift home.

Andy sneaks into his family’s house soon after the killing, and after being warmly greeted by his family, Andy is still very quiet, avoiding seeing anyone outside of the immediate family and exhibiting small moments of rage, which seems just about right for a soldier just recently removed from combat. The next day, while lounging outside, Andy is greeted by the mailman, a longtime friend of the family, who gleefully explains how his experiences during World War Two were vastly different than Vietnam. This enrages Andy, and he finds refuge in his old bedroom where he pathologically rocks in rocking chair all day and night, drawing the concern of his father Charlie (John Marley) who will also recount how he never behaved like that after his service in World War Two. It is in these scenes where Bob Clark reminds the viewer of the old adage that was once uttered by the head of the Veterans Administration; “When a soldier returned from World War Two, everyone bought him a drink. When a soldier came back from Korea, he bought his own drink. And when a solider came back from Vietnam, he has to buy everyone else a drink.” Even though the town is adorned in flags and patriotic symbols, there is little patience for the PTSD exhibited by the soldiers who served in Vietnam, and in “Deathdream,” the PTSD is transformed into a need for Andy to drain the blood from the living in order to continue being part of this society that may not have time for him. More than most political metaphors that the zombie genre has carried over the years, this one really hits home.

Though there are a few scenes where a kind of comic relief is put in, the overall mood of “Deathdream” is dire and extremely sad. Attempts to reintegrate Andy into a world that no longer exists for him by his family are met with brutally violent ends, physically manifesting any soldier’s genuine contempt for those around him who have no desire to understand his pain and sacrifice during that unpopular war. The unrelenting and tragic end of this film, involving Andy’s parents and sister, show a commitment by Clark to illustrate the level of impact that war takes on a solider and those around him, even when the soldier is met by the best intentions of loved ones who even offer psychological counseling as the Brooks family offers their son Andy. “Deathdream” though brutal, hammers home the sad truth that if your son were even able to come home, he may never actually be home again.

Deathdream Trailer from 1972:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eIqA1ZbpYFw

As stated earlier, what truly pulls “Deathdream” together are the performances of Carlin, Marley, and Backus who take a minimal amount of dialog top help create a terse, heartfelt film that makes for a very necessary statement piece on the particular plight of Vietnam veterans. “Deathdream” succeeds by using grotesque horror methods to illustrate the struggle of Vietnam vets in ways that even award winning films like “Coming Home” and “The Deer Hunter” sometime fail to execute.

Director Bob Clark showed a clear talent for being able to draw top flight performances out of his actors in his early career.  Several years after “Deathdream, Clark would direct legendary actor, Jack Lemmon, to an Oscar nominated performance in the equally forgotten 1980 drama, “Tribute.” It is a pity that the end of Clark’s career would be filled with the likes of Sylvester Stallone’s “Rhinestone,” and “Baby Geniuses,” as there was a true maverick talent that seemed to be destroyed after the unbelievable financial success of his “Porky’s films. Sadly, Bob Clark was killed in 2007 in a car accident with his son Ariel, a tragic end to a talent who for at least a decade was making interesting films, both in and out of the Hollywood system.

The Kids Are Not All Right: The Political 1978 Spanish Horror Film, “Who Can Kill A Child?”

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The 1978 Spanish Poster for “Who Can Kill A Child?”

The politics of “Quién puede matar a un niño?” (“Who Can Kill A Child” released in the US as “Island of the Damned) director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador become very clear only five minutes into the film; a heavy handed montage of real atrocities against children from World War Two to Vietnam to the famine in 1970s Central Africa that sets up the premise of this flawed but unique horror film.

Based on ideas from the then unwritten novel, “El juego de los niños” (Juvenile Game) by science fiction writer, Juan José Plans, “Who Can Kill A Child” follows the tradition of many zombie films in that it has a group of infected humans who begin to exhibit some traits of murderous behavior. It also draws from the tradition of the haunted house film but uses an island as its particular chamber of horrors. But what truly separates this film from its predecessors in those genres is that its subjects and its choice of scenery appear more normal than one could imagine before everything invariably turns to hell.   Expertly shot by a young José Luis Alcaine, who would become the cinematographer of choice for Pedro Almodovar and Bigas Luna, this film has the visual aesthetics of an idyllic day trip to a Spanish resort island where everything appears, but firmly places the idea in the mind of the viewer, that the eventual dystopia could happen anywhere.

The plot involves two English tourists, Tom, a biologist, and Evelyn his wife, who are vacationing through Spain before the birth of their third child. They spend a festive day in a coastal town but are blissfully ignorant of the fact that bodies from a nearby island they plan on visiting the next day are washing up on the shores of their vacation spot. After reading a headline of war, there is some small talk from the clerk in the photography shop of how “children are always ignored victims of war and famine,” but the couple feign their concern and go on their way. The next day Tom and Evelyn rent a small rickety boat and travel alone to Almanzora, an island four hours off the coast, for some peace and quiet. I get that they are ignorant, but really who does this with their six-month pregnant wife anyway? After their midday arrival, they begin to notice that the town is fairly deserted except for some exceptionally adorable children, which draws some concern. Soon after finding refuge in an empty bar, the couple witnesses the lone adult they encounter viciously and gleefully beaten with his own cane by one of the children. They now begin to understand that things are not well in this “village of the damned.”

Given that we are now dealing with a group of evil children doing unnaturally bad things, I have to address the difference between the inceptions of the behavior of the little assassins of the John Wyndham novel from 1957, “Village of The Damned” and “Who Can Kill a Child.” In “Village of The Damned,” it is made clear that a specific military incident produced the unnatural evil effects of the children, but in “Who Can Kill A Child,” we are led to believe by his use of the aforementioned montage of grotesque documentary footage that opens the film, that Serrador wants you to believe that these concerted attacks by the damned children are an almost evolutionary product of generations of child-killing by adults who show no concern for their well being.   In fact, in the novel “Juvenile Games”, Plans, uses the military spraying of a yellow dust as the agent of behavioral change but Serrador admits in a 2007 interview that “this was not necessary to show that children as a race needed to become more active in their fate without the use of a chemical.”

The unique horror that eventually ensues in the Serrador film comes from contrast of the innocence and beauty that is evident in the children’s faces and their picturesque town against the vile actions that the children mob performs. Almost all of the violence, with the exception of one notable scene, occurs during the day, which jolts the viewer differently than most horror films do in that genre because you normally cringe as you wait for the fall of darkness, which despite building some tension also prepares you for the eventual shock as opposed to here where the horror can come at any moment. Our protagonists, Tom and Evelyn are chased through the town during broad daylight by a horde of blood-thirsty Brady Bunch looking maniacs, but through the use of close-ups that show their playful indifference, the horror really hits home. And in a truly brilliant turn, you even begin to fear the one child you do not see, the one that is growing inside of Evelyn.

The key to this film is that once Tom finds a gun, the question arises; Even if warranted, “could you kill these adorable children if you could see their faces?” or “is wartime death of children a necessity that people have gotten used to after thousands of years of war and famine?” These are the political questions that Serrador presents to the viewer, and he does so pretentiously but is very successful by utilizing the genre of horror to carry this message.

Serrador later stated that if he had to make this film over again, he would’ve put the documentary montage at the end instead of the beginning, so that the violence that the children exact on Tom and Evelyn would almost seem justified after thousands of years of violence that adults have reaped on children. Again a heavy handed way to end a film, but given that this was made just two years after the death of Franco, it would mark the beginning of many Spanish films that would ask similarly hard questions about the true casualties of war.

The Writers of American Graffiti Direct a Lovecraftian Giallo: 1973’s “Messiah of Evil”

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messiahofevil poster

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”.