Messiah of Evil: The Second Coming (aka Dead People)
Starring: Marianna Hill, Michael Greer, Royal Dano, Elisha Cook Jr., Anitra Ford, Joy Bang, Bennie Robinson
Director: Willard Huyck
DVD Release Date: October 27, 2009
Runtime: 89 Minutes
Distributor: Code Red
Where to buy: Amazon
Messiah of Evil is the story of Arletty Lang, a woman who heads to a “neon stucco town” by the seaside of California called Point Dune to find her estranged artist father Joseph Lang. She encounters Thom, Laura, and Toni, a decadent threesome lazing about Point Dune at the inscrutable Thom’s behest. Thom is a “collector of legends” and, seemingly, of women as well. While his two “traveling companions” (in his words) – who are growing disenchanted with and unnerved by the seaside hamlet – travel into the heart of the town itself, Thom makes intermittent moves on Arletty. Laura and Toni both encounter more than they bargained for, as a prophecy foretelling a blood-red moon once a century proves to be more than a legend. The sanguine orb exerts unsettling habits on the inhabitants of Point Dune. As Arletty pieces together her father’s whereabouts, and Thom proves to be not quite what he seems, the two fight for survival against things far beyond human in this cursed town.
Hello Ghouls and Boils,
Tonight I am pleased to tell you we have added a new Minion to SNS, my wonderful husband Henry Covert. Please join me in welcoming him to our Staff. This evening he is going to share his views on the re-release of the 1973 horror gem, Messiah of Evil (which is now been added to my favorites list). Sit back and enjoy this insightful article (because it is much more than a review). You will learn all of the interesting connections and history behind this once nearly lost and now beautifully restored film. I shall not leave you in suspense any longer, my wicked ones. I will hand this over to Mr. Covert. As always — Enjoy, my fiends!
Sarah L. Covert
Willard Huyck’s Messiah of Evil is one of a legion of elusive genre films from the 1960s and 70s that have cropped up for decades on bootleg and public domain videotapes mastered from source tapes often ravaged by scratches, splices, and colour so oversaturated it bled like an opened vein. Blood Sabbath, Bury Me An Angel and Oliver Stone’s Seizure spring readily to mind as examples; all now exist looking exactly the same – un-restored and badly duped – except on DVD, instead of VHS. These ragged transfers had been duped and pan and scanned to the point that the film print often appeared on the verge of disintegration. As with all holy grails of psychotronic cinema, fans wanting to see the film as intended prior to the era of the DVD plunked down exorbitant change for Huyck’s flick in cropped and pan and scanned VHS tapes and, later, DVD.
Messiah of Evil more or less vanished after its theatrical run, the last legs of which saw it sloppily cut and retitled Dead People and sundry other equally odious monikers. Difficult to find under a slew of re-titlings for various video labels and, prior to that drive-in markets, Messiah of Evil, when seen at all, was a curio, a relic, a mere shade of the film that was shot. Which is sad and curious, as its pedigree – in front of and behind the camera – boasted outstanding talent who went on to noteworthy work in both mainstream and independent pictures.
Enter Code Red, a recently formed cult movie DVD label. They have amended the injustices done to this bizarre little film in a big, beautiful way. Many cult titles have been dusted off and given well-deserved re-masterings in the DVD era, and Code Red has done the same for this underground oddity. The ensuing DVD title is Messiah of Evil: The Second Coming.
I’d heard of Messiah of Evil for years as its mutilated iterations made the rounds. Then my wife Sarah discovered that it was one of the ‘50 Chilling’ titles in her public domain, uber-affordable (but not remastered) set of genre DVDs, the kind that dot the home video landscape. Contrary to its presentation of the film in this set, Messiah of Evil packed a punch I was definitely not prepared for. I was excited to finally see it, but it turned out to be far better than I’d imagined. My wife left the 50 chilling discs behind, and I easily watched Messiah of Evil six or seven times while she was finishing a cross-country job. It was obvious to me that Messiah of Evil was a truly unique film undeservedly consigned to home video limbo.
Messiah of Evil was spawned by writer/ director Huyck and co-writer Gloria Katz ( who many – though not Gloria herself – insist was the film’s co-director) – the team that went on to pair with George Lucas on American Graffiti; and, later, on a film adaptation of Steve Gerber’s classic and iconoclastic Marvel Comics character Howard the Duck that proved embarrassing for all involved. Messiah of Evil melds a freewheeling 70s zeitgeist with older pulp horror to craft a Lovecraftian dirge of a film beneath a patina of “hip”. This only contributes to its singular charms.
The script is constructed around Point Dune, a town once known as New Bethlehem. This “neon stucco town”, to quote our central character, Arletty Lang, is evocative of Innsmouth, Arkham, Dunwich, Kingsport – the doomed hamlets of HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. These sleepy coastal towns posited half-dazed (and, often, half-human) inhabitants who invariably awaken from slumber some eldritch being and, consumed with madness, spiral towards their collective doom, taking any visitors to these cursed climes along with them to oblivion – or worse.
In this scenario, there are four visitors to our mysterious town. Arletty (Marianna Hill – Medium Cool, High Plains Drifter, The Godfather: Part II) and a trio of young hedonists known only as Toni (Joy Bang – Play It Again, Sam, Cisco Pike, Night of the Cobra Woman), Laura (Anitra Ford – The Big Bird Cage, Invasion of the Bee Girls, The Longest Yard), and the hero-by-default of our piece, the inscrutable Thom (the late Michael Greer – The Gay Deceivers, Fortune and Men’s Eyes, The Rose), who pretty much steals the show and definitely gets all the best lines. Arletty has come to find her errant father, Joseph, an avant-garde painter (Royal Dano – The Trouble with Harry, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Twin Peaks). Is he missing, dead, or in hiding for some horrid, unthinkable reason? The town drunk, Charlie (Elisha Cook Jr. – The Big Sleep, The Killing, Haunted Palace [based on Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward] , Rosemary’s Baby, Blacula) holds some of the answers – such as the legend of the blood red moon that will emerge once a century over Point Dune (a legend that has also drawn Thom there) – but not for long. Cook turns in a small but stellar performance, as does Dano – two master character actors bringing loads of class to the picture.
The film opens with a very young Walter Hill playing the first victim of Point Dune’s madness that we encounter. Hill went on to be a megawatt Hollywood player, as producer of the Alien franchise and director of the 48 Hours films. However, his early works as an action auteur are what have made him a legend among modern cineastes. Hill wrote and directed such gritty classics as Hard Times, The Driver, The Warriors, and Southern Comfort.
Arletty presses on in her quest, encountering a few blood-red herrings across the way and an unforgettable eccentric – Albert, an African-American albino (Bennie Robinson, who never acted before or since this film, but whose charismatic presence made Albert the film’s iconic character). Albert has become so indelibly associated with Messiah of Evil that he’s evolved into the film’s icon; his image is omnipresent on the DVD inserts, menus and the disc itself.
One tool in his arsenal that Huyck employs that distinguishes his film is the way in which he bestows mundane locations – a supermarket, a movie theatre, a gas station – with a sense of uncanny dread. These set pieces will linger in the memory long after an initial viewing. These everyday locales serve as the stage for the transmogrification of the townspeople into flesh eating ghouls who bleed from their eyes and swat bullets aside like insects.
Toward the movie’s end, it lurches into a bizarre flashback that, were it not for a few scant characters’ explications on the centennial of the sanguine moon, would grind a very lively film to a halting non-sequitor. The flashback takes place a century ago, and involve a “Dark Stranger” (alluded to earlier by Charlie), whose face is never seen clearly (allegedly he was played uncredited by Michael Greer in a dual role). His link to the blood-red moon which holds sway over the town does becomes somewhat clearer at least.
Still, much is left to the viewer’s imagination, partially due to a breakdown in funding that truncated the film’s final scenes and curtailed the expansion of the Dark Stranger subplot.
Suffice to say, though, that the Stranger, intentional or not, is evocative of Lovecraft’s “Outer God”, Nyarlathotep, just as Point Dune and its denizens echo the aforementioned accursed villages that Lovecraft created.
Messiah of Evil opens with a gorgeous blue-green tinted wide shot of a hallway and walking towards us is a woman thought to be insane. She is the narrator of our story, and her anguished cries bring the tale full circle to a foreboding end.
Messiah of Evil boasts an impressive cast and crew who did stellar work on the film well before moving on to higher profile gigs. Key works of some have been included above, but there are many other Messiah of Evil alumni with noteworthy credits. Co-writer/co-producer Gloria Katz co-wrote with Huyck their breakthrough hit, American Graffiti, beginning their long association with George Lucas, which included Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and the aforementioned Howard The Duck. Cinematographer Steve Katz, Gloria’s brother, went on to shoot such varied fare as: The Kentucky Fried Movie, The Blues Brothers, and Gods and Monsters; and their brother Michael Katz served as gaffer or sound man on such varied flicks as: Terminal Island, Piranha, Blue Velvet, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and Night on Earth, among many others.
Editor Scott Conrad’s resume has been exhaustive and varied, moving from Messiah of Evil to cult classic A Boy and His Dog, and on to Rocky, Up in Smoke, Cat’s Eye, and numerous low-budget, television, and documentary offerings. Production designer/ art director Jack Fisk’s early career was punctuated by art direction for exploitation fare (Terminal Island, Cool Breeze), and then, notably, Badlands and Carrie, both starring his wife Sissy Spacek, an early patron of David Lynch who aided in making Eraserhead, in which Fisk acted, a reality.
Fisk later served as Lynch’s production designer on The Straight Story (also featuring Spacek) and Mulholland Dr., and also on films ranging from over-the-top cultish fare (Phantom of the Paradise, Darktown Strutters) to work for legendary filmmaker Terence Malick (The Thin Red Line, The New World). Even costume designers Rosanna Norton and Jodie Lynn Tillen graduated to stellar work: Norton on Lemora, Phantom of the Paradise, and Carrie; and Tillen on Hit Man, Thief, and Licence to Kill . Finally, director Willard Huyck’s most notable works remain the four films he co-wrote and co-produced with Gloria Katz.
Messiah of Evil: The Second Coming is a gorgeous DVD containing generous and insightful extras. Included are an audio commentary featuring Huyck and Katz; onscreen interviews with the pair; an audio interview with Joy Bang; short films by Huyck and Katz; and, of course (finally!), a brand new widescreen (2:35:1) high def transfer supervised by Huyck.
Messiah of Evil stands as a forgotten gem in the realm of occult-themed, Lovecraftian, and/ or quality low-budget psychotronic cinema. The mood and atmosphere obliterate most of modern Tinseltown’s attempts at horror. Code Red’s DVD presentation is one of the more wonderful restoration jobs I’ve seen of late. Messiah of Evil is a well-deserved, albeit little-known feather in the cap of all involved, especially those who went on to work on major Hollywood releases.
I feel that a few closing thoughts may be necessary on Huyck and Katz and how we get from Messiah of Evil to Howard the Duck, especially for fans of Howard The Duck the film. In keeping with the DVD at hand’s Judeo-Christian-esque titling, Messiah of Evil went many a mile towards the redemption of Huyck and Katz for Howard The Duck in my eyes. Undeniably, their take on Howard is one that many 80s film aficionados have a fondness for. Which is fine, except it should be stressed that, beyond a talking duck named Howard who knows a human named Bev, there is absolutely no resemblance to Gerber’s brilliant stories. So I was very pleased to see that Huyck and Katz did once possess a great deal of talent, and perhaps George Lucas steered them to the wrong pond.
I plan to watch The Second Coming many more times in years to come. And I’ll also be watching the moon… As a film, I give Messiah of Evil a 4 out of 5; for sheer uniqueness, I have to award it a full-on 5.
Henry Covert – Minion (Reviewer)