#16 - 6 votes
At first glance, Messiah of Evil could be mistaken for one of the many forgettable, generic horror movies that played at grindhouses and drive-ins before fading into obscurity and an afterlife spent as a public domain DVD on dollar store shelves. If one were to just describe its murky narrative - about a young woman searching for her father who ends up in a town full of possessed, vampire-like townsfolk controlled by a mysterious character known as "the dark stranger" - it doesn't sound like anything special. And yet, like Carnival of Souls before it, Messiah of Evil is a case where a simple story is elevated by the movie's surreal unsettling atmosphere, which is equal parts Lovecraft and post-'60s psychedelia. As lead character Arletty (Marianna Hill) and the group of unafflicted people she meets in the town are preyed upon by the stranger and his minions, the movie delivers a couple of spectacularly frightening setpieces, and director Willard Huyck sustains the movie's nightmarish tone through its eerily unresolved ending.
Messiah of Evil is also notable for being one of those low-budget movies from the period that would prove to be a nexus of important figures in '70s American film. Huyck and his co-writer, producer and wife Gloria Katz would go on to co-write American Graffiti (released the same year), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and, er, the Huyck-directed Howard the Duck. Walter Hill appears in the movie's opening scene, and one of the production designers was Jack Fisk, whose subsequent credits include Mulholland Drive, There Will Be Blood and all of Terrence Malick's films. Fisk and Joan Marcoe's contributions to Messiah of Evil are key to the movie's success; the giant, trippy, vaguely threatening murals contribute greatly to the movie's atmosphere. Cinematographer Stephen Katz also deserves a lot of credit, particularly for the movie's best-known scene, as he uses the harsh flourescent lighting of a supermarket to turn the familiar suddenly threatening. The best compliment I can give Messiah of Evil is that I watched a fullscreen version of the movie with washed-out colors to write this, and yet its images got under my skin anyway; I'm looking forward to eventually checking out Code Red's widescreen release of the movie, as I suspect I'll grow to love it.
U.S. Release Date: May 2, 1973