Messiah of Evil: Standard Edition
Blu-ray ALL - America - Radiance Films
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (21st March 2024).
The Film

Arletty (High Plains Drifter's Marianna Hill) travels to dying coastal village Point Dume looking for her artist father (Electra Glide in Blue's Royal Dano) but finds that he has disappeared, leaving behind a diary expressing fears of a change coming over him and the town. When Arletty makes inquiries at a local gallery, she learns that two women and a man have also been asking about him. She meets the beatnik trio – playboy "collector of old legends" Thom (The Curious Female's Michael Greer), model Laura (Invasion of the Bee Girls' Anitra Ford), and sexpot teenager Toni (Night of the Cobra Woman's Joy Bang) – as they are interviewing a local tramp (House on Haunted Hill's Elisha Cook Jr.) relating the grisly legend of Point Dune foretelling the return of "The Stranger" when the moon turns blood red (the tramp subsequently warns Arletty that if her father comes back "You can't bury him. Don't put him in the ground. You got to burn him"). Thrown out of their motel, the trio shack up with Arletty at her father's seaside house and form a foursome of sexual tension. As they delve into Arletty's father's disappearance, the townspeoples' eyes have started bleeding and they've developed a taste for raw meat.

Although it has its share of gore and zombie action – including standout set-pieces like Laura's ill-fated moonlight hitchhiking and Ralph's grocery store visit or Toni's visit to a movie theater with the marquee reading "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye" to more subtly unnerving sequences like the nervous interaction between a gas station attendant (Silent Night, Deadly Night's Charles Dierkop) and one of the Point Dume locals (Bennie Robinson) carrying macabre cargo in his pick-up, future director Walter Hill seeking help from a seemingly normal local, or a woman who seeks Thom's help after an attack slowly transforming before his eyes – Messiah of Evil is an underrated horror film with a laid-back 70's semi-arthouse atmosphere. Writer/director Willard Huyck and and his wife and co-writer Gloria Katz – who subsequently scripted George Lucas' American Graffiti and Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – Katz has cited in interviews Antonioni's L'avventura as an influence while claiming not to have seen horror films like Carnival of Souls, Night of the Living Dead, and Let's Scare Jessica to Death in which it would be good company, as well as shot references to Godard's Pierrot le Fou and the heroine being named after a character from Pagnol's Children of Paradise.

The film's horror themes draw less from horror films than from literature, specifically H.P. Lovecraft with references to "the old gods," and the notion that a spiritual malaise about the modern world would drive people towards worship of eldritch forces also has parallels in the period's attraction to and exploration of alternative religions and the fears of evil cults taking over loved ones. The setting is not an ancient Eastern coastal fishing village but a California beach town bordered by Stygian darkness but brimming with neon and window displays yet strangely depopulated; and the horror seems less cosmically apocalyptic than determined to take the world out with a whimper (the wraparound that ponders Arletty's sanity and the veracity of her story would seem like a cop-out if not for her final lines of narration: "We sit in the sun and wait. We sleep and we dream, each of us dying slowly in the prison of our minds"). The backstory involving the Dark Stranger as a survivor the Donner Party also suggests something of the mythos of the Wendigo in his spreading cannibalism supernaturally. For a film about people losing their humanity, there are plenty of emotions brimming under the surface from doll-like Arletty yearning for her absent father to the effect of her presence in the heretofore sexually-ambiguous mιnage ΰ trois relationship (with glamorous Laura perhaps surmising that the willowy Arletty might be favored by Thom because she seems more psychologically-malleable). When the producers locked Huyck and Katz out of the cutting room, they imposed the melodramatic song "Hold On to Love" by Raun MacKinnon on the pre-credits sequence and closing credits. At first, the song seems to be tonally out of step with the rest of the film; however, upon reflection, it seems to comment on how the characters only seem to try to connect with one another emotionally out of fear, and the plaintive refrain feels like it falls on deaf ears.

The film was technically not finished and the final result was put together with what was available. Part of what was not filmed was the particulars of the ending ritual on the beach, with Arletty's narration attempting to smooth things over. While frustrating, it also stimulates various what-ifs, particularly with the casting of Greer as "Dark Stranger" as it is unclear if it was an actual dual role – lending another layer of meaning when Laura tells Toni that they did not just get lost and end up in Point Dume – or if like the casting of tall actor Jessie Lawrence Ferguson as both a grad student and the silhouetted "Prince of Darkness" in the titular John Carpenter film it might have just been that he had the build for the character whose face is obscured – although its possible that even the Dark Stranger might have lost something of himself wandering the Earth collecting legends while waiting for the world to look back to "old gods and old dark ways" and turn the moon blood red. Although not well-received by critics at the time of its release – first under the title Messiah of Evil, then as "Return of the Living Dead" for which Huyck was served with a lawsuit at the point where he had no ownership or financial interest in the film, and then as "Dead People" – with the exception of Sight and Sound's Robin Wood. The film has since achieved a cult following through pan-and-scan video transfers and, more recently, repertory screenings in scope, restoring the Techniscope framing and expressionist color gel lighting of cinematographer Stephan Katz (Sister, Sister). Fans of off-beat horror and arthouse pretense will enjoy this underrated and disquieting little sleeper.


Released theatrically at least two years after the unfinished film shoot, Messiah of Evil arrived on VHS in a handsome big box edition from Video Gems; unfortunately, that dead-center cropped transfer was the source of the several unauthorized DVDs and multi-film copies of the film (the only alternative at the time being a Greek VHS with burnt-in subtitles that framed the film slightly more generously at 1.85:1). A new, restored transfer in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement was one of the triumphs of independent label Code Red Releasing whose 35th Anniversary Special Edition featured a new commentary by Huyck and Katz, an interview with Bang, and two Huyck short films; and this HD master was upgraded to Blu-ray five years later with little fanfare but offered modest improvements due to the resolution's ability to render a broader range of colors and brightness levels.

Radiance Films' 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray - previously released last year as a limited edition with special case and a booklet that sold out before the street date, and then as a by-popular-demand limited special edition with standard case and a shorter booklet - comes from a new 4K scan of the same materials held by the Academy Film Archive (the original camera negative long since disappeared), and the grading is certainly different, pleasing in some areas but less so in others. The brighter image lends a bit more pop to the reds and blues – gels and dιcor – while faces seem a bit pinker (they were a bit brown in the SD rendition of the Code Red transfer but a bit more naturalistic in the HD treatment). While the greater brightness reveals some more detail and texture in the settings and clothing, it does slightly flatten some already brighter scenes that offered up some depth and sculpting to faces and figures (although this does emphasize how flat the real world looks compared to the angular murals on the walls of Arletty's father's seaside house and studio). While the film's "dead people" look a bit more artificial with their white make-up in the brighter transfer, close-ups of Arletty's father really pop in depth once he has been doused with blue paint. While the brightness of the Code Red with the detail of the Radiance scan might have made a fair compromise given the limitations of the materials, owners of both editions may have a different preference while those who do not have the out-of-print earlier editions will still be well-served here.


The original mono track is rendered here in 24-bit LPCM 2.0 mono sounding similarly clean compared to the Code Red DVD transfer with some underlying faint hiss organic to the mix and the optical track. Dialogue comes through clearly and the the bombastic Phillan Bishop (The Severed Arm) electronic score seems like it was intended to be a little "crunchy" at the high end. Like the Code Red versions, the transfer has removed the theme song "Hold On to Love" and it is unfortunate that we do not at least get the option of an alternate track (or at least the alternate opening and closing as video extras). Optional English SDH subtitles are included.


Radiance Films was not able to carry over the Huyck/Katz track from the Code Red release but they have provided a new audio commentary by critics and horror experts Kim Newman and Stephen Thrower who note the direct and peripheral involvement of crew who would influence the direction of mainstream American cinema later in the decade, couch the film in the context of Southern California counterculture seventies horror like The Witch Who Came from the Sea, The Velvet Vampire, and The Deathmaster (I would add Warlock Moon) along with the East coast Let's Scare Jessica to Death, the influences of Lovecraft, Night of the Living Dead, and Carnival of Souls, the understated camp aspect of casting Greer from Fortune and Men's Eyes and The Gay Deceivers, and draw parallels with what Jean Rollin was doing with his vampire films in France as well as Huyck and Katz's big box office failure Howard the Duck.

Huyck is represented on the disc in an archival interview with co-writer/director Willard Huyck by Mike White from the Projection Booth Podcast (37:34) in which he recalls going to high school with Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential), originally attending USC for journalism at a time when getting into the film program was as easy as being asked if he was interested, meeting UCLA student Katz at a Corman screening, and quitting the film program to work at American International Pictures where he co-wrote The Devil's 8 with John Milius (Conan the Barbarian). The opportunity to direct Messiah of Evil came when an agent who was scouting young writers offered him a budget and creative freedom so long as the product was a horror movie (the budget shrunk multiple times, including an investor who had roof repairs). He notes the presence of family members, out-of-work aerospace workers among the ghouls, as well as colleagues Hill, B.W.L. Norton, and experimental filmmaker Morgan Fisher as associate editor. He also gives some vague descriptions of the unfinished ending, being locked out of the editing room, and not being aware of the release ahead of time. He is also unclear if the "awful music" he mentions the producers added refers solely to the MacKinnon song or the electronic score as well.

"What the Blood Moon Brings: Messiah of Evil, A New American Nightmare" (56:55) features writer Guy Adams, Mikel J. Koven, and Maitland McDonagh as well as academics Dr. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Dr. David Huckvale discussing the film in the context of the post-war American horror landscape and its move from fifties sci-fi to a "new mythos" of zombies from voodoo/medical experiment slaves to "creatures of just need" and a switch in the genre from the effect of a "pleasant shudder" to destabilization. They also contrast the zombies of the film with those of Romero, as well as the Euro arthouse influences on Huyck and Katz, and the fear of cults that was in the zeitgeist (which dovetails into the influence of Lovecraft and specifically "The Shadow Over Innsmouth").

The disc closes with a visual essay on the American Gothic by critic Kat Ellinger (21:31) in which Ellinger contrasts the themes and tropes of the European Gothic with the American Southern and New England examples – including perils of the wilderness, savage outsiders, and religious mania – of the likes of Charles Brocken Brown, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Edgar Allan Poe.


Unlike the aforementioned limited and special editions, this standard edition does not feature any booklet.


Fans of off-beat horror and arthouse pretense will enjoy this admirable little sleeper.


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