Saturday, February 20, 2010

'Messiah of Evil' is classic
in need of rediscovery

Messiah of Evil (aka "Dead People" and "The Second Coming") (1973)
Starring: Marianna Hill, Michael Greer, Joy Bang, and Elisa Cook, Jr.
Director: Willard Hyuck
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Arletta (Hill) arrives in the small coastal town where her father disappeared. She moves into his house while attempting to learn his fate, but finds the locals unwilling to talk to her. She soon meets up with Thom (Greer) who is a collector of modern legends and folk-tales, and of women... and after they learn of the town's gruesome history from a broken-down, crazed drunk (Cook), they discover the town's history is repeating itself: The townsfolk turning into flesh-eating zombies. Will this nightmare-curse claim the visitors as well?

"Messiah of Evil" is a different sort of horror film and a different sort of zombie movie. It's a nightmare-like tale of a small town that's consumed by a curse of a completely unknown (and therefore unstoppable) origin, and as the movie progresses, it becomes more and more dreamlike in its quality. (From the African-American albino and his pick-up truck full of corpses as Arletta is arriving in the doomed town of Point Dune, through Toni (Bang) going to see a movie theater where the marquee reads "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye" and is subsequently surrounded by townie zombies that gradually fill the auditorium around her as she is absorbed by the film, to Thom and Aerletta's final desperate escape attempts, the film is full of hazy symbology and a sense of ever-increasing dread.)

The technical aspects of the film are iffy--the lighting and camerawork and editing all seem a bit on the weak side--but there are plenty of inventive visuals that work on many levels, the staging of the scenes, the sets, and, most importantly, the performances of every actor in the film are top-notch. It is the acting that really clinches the dreamy, nightmarish sense that hovers over the entire film. This is horror movie that needs the viewers attention to work, but it also rewards the viewer plenty who gives it.

"Messiah of Evil" is one of those films that for whatever reason has fallen into obscurity and which is one those wonderful surprises that lurk inside those massive DVD movie packs, like "Chilling Classics", which is where I discovered it. It's the sort of movie that makes such sets worth buying, and that makes up for some of the other offerings included. In fact, "Messiah of Evil" would be deserving of an 8-rating, if not for the fact that it takes the dreamlike quality that its creators managed to imbue it with just a little too far. I don't necessarily need a story to be wrapped up nicely at the end, but I don't want to have a sense that the filmmakers didn't really know themselves what the source of the evil in the movie was, or perhaps even how to effectively end their movie. At the end of this one, I felt that a little of both might well have been the case.

However, the not-quite-pulled-off end of this film isn't as damaging to the overall experience as it often is. Everything leading up to it is so well done that this film is one of several good reasons for spending money on, either in its ragged public domain state in any one of several multi-film budget packs, or in the recently released restored version (reportedly created using one of only two still-existing 35mm prints of the film.)

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