Each film is a variation on dead people walking, just as each vampire film is a variation on fanged people sucking. I don't dislike zombie movies -- never have. But due to the onslaught of them recently, I feel minimal excitement when a new one is announced.
So I decided to go back to an old one. I read about Messiah of Evil eons ago. Whenever poor Howard the Duck was discussed in a predominantly negative light, director Willard Huyck and producer Gloria Katz would be discussed also. Sometimes, their first feature film, Messiah of Evil, would get a mention. Until recently, a decent version of the film has not been available.
Towards the close of 2009, Code Red released a special edition of Messiah on DVD. "Terror you won't want to remember in a film you won't be able to forget" ran the tag along the bottom of the cover sleeve.
I'm happy to say that I watched it over a month ago and haven't forgotten it -- but I'm happy to remember the terror.
When a woman (Mariana Hill) arrives in Point Dune, a strange California beach town, in search of her missing father, she is greeted without warmth or hospitality. Michael Greer, a strange fellow permanently flanked by two attractive women with continental cinema morality, offers Hill some vague information about her father's whereabouts, but he seems indifferent to her and everything else. We get the sense that the town has become a purgatory of sorts, a waiting room for souls bound for hell.
Hill's encounter with a scary looking albino man at the local gas station is more evidence that Point Dune may have slipped off the map entirely.
I experienced unique feelings watching Carnival of Souls for the first time, and these were stirred once again watching this. Like Messiah's heroine, the heroine of Souls arrives in a new town that inspires more questions than answers. She was fleeing from an accident and starting a new job, but she took a detour through a strange mirage first seen on the horizon from the road. The mirage turned out to be real, but it provided no comfort in the end.
Messiah has a tone and atmosphere akin to Souls, and the musky scent of Richard Blackburn's Lemora - A Child's Tale of the Supernatural, one of my all-time favorite spook pics. As in Lemora, the air is thick with dread and apprehension here, and a troubling erotic siren calls to the characters.
The film is about discovery, and memory, and it's an exceptionally well made production with some stunning art direction. The massive murals that plaster the walls of the house where Hill's father once resided are shot in such a way that they encroach on the characters standing in front of them, and become participants in the film themselves.
The film's depiction of Point Dune is unique, and represents a deliberate choice that pays off. That choice is not to portray the town as abandoned or shuttered. Some infrastructure still exists. The heroine's trip to the supermarket ('Ralph's') is fraught with tension because the too bright lights of the store invite suspicion. Her subsequent visit to the cinema becomes one of the film's most effective set pieces, and is a textbook example of suspense building. Huyck, the director, maintains the tension by insisting on a sense of normality that screws with our assumptions.
There are zombies and they do eat flesh. They're pale, sad, reluctant benefactors of a hell-born disease that is threatening to spread beyond the town. Hill's encounters with them drive her towards insanity when she comprehends the hopelessness of her situation.
The beach setting, and some ritualistic scenes of burying and burning on the beach, possess a Jean Rollin quality. The atmosphere of dread, and the odd sense that a greater, darker power is at work, is pure Lovecraft. The frantic flight of the couple in Narcisso Ibanez Serrador's tense Who Could Kill A Child? is also echoed here only because I saw Serrador's film first; Messiah, in fact, was produced in '73, prior to all the works I've referenced.
This creepy, sensual gem from the writers of American Graffiti confounds us with its ambiguous tone, quiet frissons, and relentless invention.
Keep your eye out for director Walter Hill in a cameo.