Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz are known in Hollywood for their work with George Lucas: after writing American Graffiti, they script-doctored Star Wars, wrote Indiana Jones and the Temple of […]
Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz are known in Hollywood for their work with George Lucas: after writing American Graffiti, they script-doctored Star Wars, wrote Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and went on to direct the infamous Howard the Duck. Their career ended abruptly, torpedoed by that one seemingly unforgivable misstep. But long before that, in their early days, they made a disturbing, atmospheric horror film that has been largely forgotten for no good reason: Messiah of Evil, released in 1973, remains one of the most fascinating genre films to come out of America in the 1970s. The critique of consumerism is obvious and logical: readapting the nascent zombie tropes with their own sensibilities, the couple simultaneously carved a place for their film among the early masterpieces of the genre, while offering a thematically rich picture that overflew with unusual ideas. Chief among them is the examination of the relationship the American cultural consciousness harbors with its Frontier-expanding past.
The subject of “elevated horror” that seems to come back cyclically every year is based on the assumption that horror auteurs are rare. While the industry has indeed been giving more visibility overall to franchise/studio films since the 1980s, independent horror auteurs were basically the only horror movie makers in the industry before that, save for the exploitation niche (and even there, one could argue they were exploitation auteurs). Huyck and Katz were auteurs, who had just finished their treatment of American Graffiti. Eager to move on to their next project, they penned their horror project in 1971 and managed to secure $ 85,000 to shoot it in California.
The story revolves around Arletty, a young woman who wishes to reconnect with her father. She travels to Point Dune, a small town located on the West coast, and stays at her father’s art studio, which seems to have been recently abandoned. She makes the acquaintance of Thom, a dilettante playboy traveling with two women. As her search continues, she must contend with the increasingly strange behaviour of the locals, and the growing pains of a mysterious condition she comes to be affected by.
The opening of the film makes it clear we are watching a horror movie: the silhouette of a woman, standing against the light at the end of a darkened corridor, comes closer and closer to the camera (Wes Craven will use exactly the same shot years later in the opening of A Nightmare on Elm Street) as the voice-over narration makes the promise that “no one will hear you scream” – half a decade before a more iconic variation of it is used on the Alien poster. That promise reaches down to a primal fear, the one that when confronted with death, we will all be completely alone. It’s the fear of being isolated, of being disconnected from the world. There are many shots in Messiah of Evil that blend the corporeal, three-dimensional bodies of humans with flat artistic representations of the human form. The Techniscope cinematography allows for a sense of displacement, of drowning even, with Arletty’s silhouette becoming indistinguishable from the shape of pictures. That’s where Huyck and Katz got the idea of making the Thuggee come out of a wall painting in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. But in Messiah of Evil, the stunning murals – painted by Joan Mocine and Jack Fiske, both of whom would go on to work on Terrence Malick’s films – present art as an ominous, menacing presence. The walls appear to be dead, but also to almost come alive when ensnaring the characters.
This playfulness that blends the foreground with the background and makes use of shapes and colors to create a disorientating effect on the viewer predates Dario Argento’s best works. Arletty’s father lives in a constant state of alienation, in a place where the undead hordes look at him from the outside as well as from the inside. The fact that characters inhabit artistic creations of a foreboding nature works as a perfect visual expression of the film’s underlying themes: even when shielded by their own creations, their sense of stable and elaborated civilization, the primal horror of the unknown seeps through and eventually invades the space of the conqueror. In her father’s house, Arletty lives as did the pioneers of the West: day to day, surrounded by hostile forces of nature that cannot be explained.
The other characters that have any substance are, of course, Thom and his two companions, Toni and Laura. The trio seems to form the quintessential representation of social revolutions in 1960s America: a menage-à-trois amongst a wealthy but idle adventurer, a sophisticated but possessive woman, and an energetic but unruly young woman. It’s like Huyck and Katz wanted to bring together all the facets of the modern American middle-class, focusing the story on Arletty, who embodies the search for family and identity. The character is ostensibly named after the famous French actress and singer who was at the height of her career in the 1940s in Nazi-occupied France. She, too, came to represent a figure for the search of identity, having developed a relationship with a German officer. Her Frenchness was never lost and yet, she never really fit in the French entertainment landscape after the war. Huyck’s and Katz’s Arletty is a down-to-earth woman who lets herself be seduced by a shady womanizer because she fears what the world around her is turning into. Her eventual imprisonment in a mental institute is not too far off the real Arletty’s spell in prison.
There are two scenes the film is most remembered for by cinephiles. The first is a scene in a supermarket, where one of Thom’s female companions encounters a group of the undead, feasting on the meat section. They see her and chase her through the store, before consuming her flesh. This type of scene will appear again and again in the zombie genre through the years, and it certainly shares anti-consumerist themes with subsequent films, but Messiah of Evil never makes it quite clear what has happened to these town people. The film speaks of a disease, but also categorizes them as “undead”. The movie comes soon enough after George Romero’s seminal classic to be unburdened by the clichés of the formula. It offers a unique spin on the zombie trope by ultimately pointing toward a completely different direction: the ending of the film announces the coming of the messiah of evil, and therefore suggests the locals are merely spellbound, under the influence of an eldritch force that controls them. Although not an adaptation of any pre-existing text, Messiah of Evil presents various similarities with H.P. Lovecraft stories, like the importance given to the journal of Arletty’s father, through which most of the story derives.
The other outstanding scene is the one taking place at the cinema. Thom’s second companion goes out alone to the movies and sits in an empty screening room. In spite of the outside shot of the theatre that announces a showing of Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, she watches a revisionist Western, called Gone with the West. That movie had a very troubled production and came out after Messiah of Evil. The clips were used because the production company in charge of finalizing Huyck’s and Katz’s film (without their involvement) owned the rights to that Western. Miraculously, the inclusion of these scenes ended up working spectacularly well, both cinematically and thematically.
As the screening room gradually fills up with blood-thirsty locals (unbeknownst to the poor woman), the montage we see pairs uplifting saloon music with eschatological imagery: towns aflame, barren deserts, men falling off their horses, a brutal fist fight between two women, a brawl on a canyon’s edge, and so on. It’s like watching a synthesis of all Western tropes, except it all goes wrong. And then, as the viewer has been reminded of what it looks like when Westward expansion comes to a dead end, the zombies eat the woman as the film reel fails and the projection stops: the conquest has been interrupted, the Manifest Destiny has been revoked.
Messiah of Evil seems obsessed with the Frontier and what it represents for America, but not in an overt way. Arletty reaches her father’s house, which is located at the Frontier itself, on the Californian shore. There is nothing beyond this point, and there is nothing at this point. The conquered land is dead, empty, an artist’s land with no more new art, only relics and fakes that threaten to swallow her. When she breaks into her father’s house, she breaks into a tomb, the tomb of the Western conquerors. The rest of the film is not really about her trying to figure out what happened to her father, but about the reckoning of the Americans in light of their wrongdoings in the name of their destiny.
The theme has religious and cultural connotations. Arletty is told mid-movie that her father has been found dead after he tried sailing off onto the ocean. The idea is incongruous: where would the man sail to from California? He has already reached the edge of the world. In the opening narration, we learn that Point Dune used to be called New Bethlehem (“house of meat” in Arabic, announcing the cannibalistic tones), like the birthplace of Jesus Christ according to the gospels of Luke and Matthew. Towards the end of the film, it is revealed in a flashback that the history of Point Dune was marked by the coming of a dark stranger who supposedly met with the Donner Party, a major cultural reference of cannibalism in the US. The stranger is filmed according to Western tropes (he’s the man with no name in the old West) and is said to have walked off into the sea with a promise of returning 100 years later. The Christlike tropes abound, except this particular messiah walks past the rim, crosses the edge of the word towards the unknown, and worse, the inaccessible, the dread-inducing, unconquerable beyond. Here meet Lovecraft, Romero and the Frontier. At the end of the world, Americans came face to face with something they cannot control, buy, or consume: the realization that fulfilling their Manifest Destiny actually served no greater purpose. Faced with this fear, the only thing they can do is reflect upon the motivations that drove them there in the first place.
Actually, the beginning of the film also announces this outcome: when Arletty stops at a petrol station before reaching Point Dune, she sees the station worker firing his gun into the night, seemingly hitting nothing at all. The Frontier imagery is already here: the space to be conquered, the gun as a force of conquest. When the motor station worker is killed a few minutes later, all of the lights go off for no apparent reason, and the place is plunged in complete darkness. As if the pre-colonial world, led by an unknown force, was reconquering its land, pushing back against the Frontier.
Later on, one of Thom’s companions walks through an abandoned construction site. It appears to be an unfinished settlement, a ghost town. Like seeing the zombie apocalypse before you see any zombie. In this version, people are not replaced with Natives or spirits, but with something more ominous, more fundamental, unaffected by the traditional weapons of cowboys and frontiersmen (in one scene, cops shoot at the undead, who remain unharmed). The undead abide by a new religion that brainwashes and only offers one freedom, the freedom to consume in the most visceral way possible: cannibalism. More than twenty years before Antonia Bird’s excellent Ravenous, Huyck and Katz were already weaving the threads of anthropophagy into the canvas of American expansionism.
In a way, Messiah of Evil is the ultimate expression of American folk horror: the terror comes from the land, from its history, from the actions of the people who shaped the formative past of this nation. It calls on essential American historical and cultural elements (Donner Party, Lovecraft), and it invites the audience to ponder on its relationship with the mythical foundations of the country. It’s commonly accepted that folk horror can be born in places of isolation that have ancient histories. They’re places of birth, and the Frontier is both the ultimate goal of the expansionists and the birth myth of American exceptionalism and accomplishments. America has created its own demons through centuries of conquest and cultural creations. They’ve all come to collect.
The art that is so omnipresent in the film visually exists as an artifact of death or a substitute for blood (running paint). The scene where Arletty finally meets her father ends with fire: art and the old ways are set aflame like the old frontiers town of Gone with the West, and whoever remains cannot do anything but run, run as far as possible as the forces of the messiah of evil gather, preparing to retrace the steps of “civilization”, erasing each mark made by the pioneers of the West. And no one will hear us scream.