31 Days of Horror: Film 23: Messiah of Evil (1973)

It’s time for the 31 Days of Horror: 2014 Edition. For those of you who weren’t around for last year’s journey, the plan is to watch at least 31 horror movies I’ve never seen before and review them all. So sit back, strap in, and enjoy my journey down the rabbit hole.

Creating a sustained mood in a film is a tricky business. If the director, cinematographer, actors, and the composer of the score are not on the same page, the film can easily wind up a laughable mess. But when all the elements align, the resulting atmosphere can carry a film across a lot of flaws. This is especially true in horror films. William Huyck, the co-writer/director of Messiah of Evil clearly understood the importance of creating a sustained mood of suffocating dread. The film drips with menace and the ever-present threat of violence hangs over the characters as they stumble toward their eventual doom. It’s a pity that as much work went into crafting the mood of the film didn’t go into scripting a satisfying ending.

Arletty (Marianna Hill) travels to the small coastal town of Point Dune, California searching for her missing father. After the death of his wife, he had moved to the town to work as an artist, but his letters to Arletty became erratic and filled with paranoia. When she reaches Point Dune, she finds an unfriendly town that is mostly deserted. What few residents there are either treat her like a nuisance or ignore her altogether to gather on the beach and stare at the moon.

Arletty meets Thom (Michael Greer), Laura (Anitra Ford), and Toni (Joy Bang), a trio of visitors. Thom is a slightly creepy guy who inherited a large fortune and now spends his time tracking down legends all over the world. He is fascinated by the local townspeople’s belief in a local legend that has to do with a “blood moon” that occurred a hundred years earlier. That the legend and the disappearance of Arletty’s father appear to be connected is far from a surprise.

Messiah of Evil maintains a surreal, nightmarish quality right from its opening scene set to a slow torch song that initially seems inappropriate for a horror film, but makes more sense as the atmosphere is established in the early scenes. Arletty explains her family’s history with the town of Point Dune in a voiceover that initially borders on overwrought, but dovetails nicely with the ominous readings from her father’s diary when she finds it at is his house. A mournful score by Phillan Bishop, the oddly decorated house of Arletty’s father, the way Greer and Hill play their characters as people passively accepting a nightmare, and perfectly placed cameos by Elisha Cook Jr. and Royal Dano all add to the feel of a world that doesn’t exist in reality, but that still feels real.

Huyck keeps the film moving toward its inevitable ending at a leisurely pace that heightens the nightmare logic as our small band of outsiders start to suffer grisly fates (a highlight is a sequence set in an empty movie theater that slowly fills with sinister looking people behind an oblivious Toni). But then the film stumbles badly with a third act that feels like it belongs in a different movie.

Arletty’s voiceover goes from a dreamy remembrance of the past to basically narrating what is happening onscreen. The slow pace is abandoned for scenes of people crashing through skylights and policemen firing their guns wildly into crowds. Thom goes from an unnerving presence whose place in the film is ambiguous to a bland—and ineffective—hero. The legend is even given a backstory that tries to tie it in to actual historical events, stripping it of the mystery that made it more unsettling.

It’s frustrating to see a film do as much right in its first two acts only to do everything wrong in its third. But that’s the type of film that Messiah of Evil becomes. It is still worth watching for the buildup, but the payoff is a huge letdown.

You can contact me at obsessivemovienerd@gmail.com and read all the extraneous crap that goes through my head by following me on Twitter.

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