Friday 15 April 2011

Messiah of Evil (1973)

MESSIAH OF EVIL is an obscure but influential American horror film that was directed by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz.  It was shot in 1971 at various locations in California but wasn't released until 1973.  It stars Marianna Hill as Arletty, an inmate at an asylum who recalls the series of events that led her to be incarcerated there.  She had travelled to a small coastal town called Point Dune to meet her estranged father, an artist.  Finding no trace of him, she fell in with an aristocratic drifter and his two female companions.  Gradually the four of them came to realise that the town harboured a terrible secret.

What's interesting about it is that it eschews the traditional model of Hollywood narrative cinema and instead goes for the more European method of communicating the story through vivid imagery.  In actual fact the narrative is entirely secondary to the atmosphere; what lingers in the memory is not the dialogue or important plot moments but a series of startling images.  In that respect it replicates the seemingly random but internally coherent logic of a dream - or in this case a nightmare.

Given the film's visual focus, the production design and photography are superb.  The artist's home is designed within an inch of its life, almost becoming a character in its own right.  There are also some very simple but eerie widescreen shots of supermarkets, gas stations, movie theatres and beaches - which to my mind must have been a major influence on the look of John Carpenter's THE FOG (1980).  Not only that but the theme of an ancient evil stirring to wreak havoc on a seaside town is pretty much what Carpenter's film is about.

Another couple of films it reminded me of are Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg's PERFORMANCE (1970) and Harry Kumel's DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (1971); the latter film was the first film I wrote about on this blog.  Both of those movies are marked by a sort of gender fluidity and frankness about sex which is reflected, albeit in a less overt way, in MESSIAH OF EVIL.  The relationship between the drifter Thom and his two companions - are they girlfriends, groupies, disciples? - and the ease with which they integrate into Arletty's life is, again, a theme more commonly explored in European cinema.  Perhaps the name Arletty is a nod in that direction.

Something that has occurred to me while adding stills to this review is the repeated use of imagery to do with seeing or looking.  Arletty's father is an artist and we see plenty of artworks in his studio; Elisha Cook cameo is delivered, sitting next to a television set, almost as a 'performance' to Michael Greer (see still below); Joy Bang goes to the cinema and we watch her while see watches the movie.

Anitra Ford (L) and Joy Bang (R)
The cast is a cult movie fan's dream.  Marianna Hill was in one of Howard Hawks' final movies, RED LINE 7000 (1965), appeared in an Elvis Presley movie, played opposite Robert Forster in Haskell Wexler's ground-breaking MEDIUM COOL (1969) and is in the really odd cult horror THE BABY (1972).  Apparently she moved to Europe later in life and taught at the London branch of the Actors Studio.  Michael Greer was an openly homosexual actor at a time when, in Hollywood at least, that was an incredibly brave thing to be.  He had a few good roles early in his career but, perhaps inevitably, found that quality parts didn't seem to come his way.  Nevertheless he was a noted performer on the comedy circuit and in theatre productions.  He died in 2002.

Michael Greer
There are also a couple of interesting supporting players, including two of Hollywood's finest: Elisha Cook Jr and Royal Dano, who were both in one of my (and my Dad's) all time favourite American movies ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE (1973).  There's also Joy Bang who epitomised the free spirited, sexually liberated young woman of the 1960s, both on screen and off.  She played variations on the same role in several films around this time before packing it all in and going to work as a nurse in Minnesota.

Elisha Cook Jr
The husband and wife team of Huyck and Katz were part of the Dirty Dozen group of film students at the University of Southern California, in that boom time for young film-makers.  Their careers have been patchy but they notably wrote the scripts for George Lucas's AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973) and Steven Spielberg's INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984).

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