You know those big packs of 10, 50 or even 100 movies on DVD? They're usually packaged by genre (westerns, science fiction, horror, etc.) and priced so low you have to wonder how can these flicks be any good. The vast majority of these movies are in the public domain, and the DVDs are often mastered from an old VHS copy, so you're not going to get a pristine image, Dolby 5.0 sound or any extras to speak of. What you will get is a cluster of films that range from worthless junk to fascinating curio. Messiah of Evil is an obscure gem that falls into the latter category, and it's turned up on several of these collections including Chilling Classics 50 Movie Pack from Mill Creek Entertainment and the Tales of Terror 10 pack from Brentwood Home Video.
The film was originally released in 1973 under the title Dead People, and was subsequently known as Revenge of the Screaming Dead, The Second Coming and Return of the Living Dead. Despite that last retitling, there is of course no relation to the John Russo novel of the same name or the 1985 film that book eventually spawned. That version of the film did, however, swipe the tagline "When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth," from George Romero's Dawn of the Dead. Once the lawyers got involved, the tagline was quickly dropped. Messiah of Evil appears to be the name the movie usually travels under these days.
A young woman named Arletty (Marianna Hill) arrives in a remote coastal California town called Point Dune. She's looking for her artist father, but his house is empty, the walls covered with a bizarre and fascinating collection of murals featuring eerie faces and forced perspectives. Her father's recent letters have gotten more and more bizarre, saying that he's having grotesque hallucinations and, in a very Lovecraftian stroke, that he's undergoing a mysterious change.
The locals are downright hostile and uncooperative with Arletty's search for her father. She meets a mysterious man named Thom (Michael Greer) and his two lovely "traveling companions" Laura (Anitra Ford, one of the original Barker's Beauties from The Price is Right) and Toni (bubbly sex kitten Joy Bang). Thom says he's researching the history of the area, and Arletty watches as he interviews an old drunk named Charlie played by Elisha Cook, Jr. Charlie tells how a hundred years ago when the moon turned red and the people began to change. Thom and his two companions invite themselves to stay with Arletty at her father's house. Thom it seems had been looking for Arletty's father too in hopes that he could shed some light on the legend old Charlie mentioned.
Soon Arletty finds herself suffering the same transformation her father spoke of and that seems to have infected the entire town. She bleeds spontaneously, no longer feels pain, and at one point vomits cockroaches and lizards. Her father eventually shows up to provide some exposition about that time the moon turned red. The incident was preceded by the arrival of a Dark Stranger, a preacher who had survived the Donner party by eating human flesh and following a new master. The fact that the townsfolk are undergoing the same transformation now as their ancestors did a century go seems to indicate that the Dark Stranger has returned.
One of the reasons the film works so well is that the somewhat shaky narrative is held together by several awesome set pieces. When Arletty stops at a gas station on the way to Point Dune she sees the attendant firing a gun wildly at something unseen in the darkness, shortly before his own bloody demise. Laura comes across several infected townspeople noshing on raw meat at a grocery store and flees for her life, and Toni attends a showing of the Sammy Davis, Jr. western Gone With the West, and we watch as the seats around her are slowly filled by the infected townsfolk until she realizes she has been surrounded.
Messiah of Evil has its flaws, but they seem to make the film all the more fascinating. I suspect something -- presumably time and/or budgetary problems -- prevented director Willard Huyck from getting all the footage he wanted. Several scenes, including a police confrontation with the townspeople, Thom being scratched by an infected woman, and the entire climax of the film contain some of the weirdest edits I've ever seen. There's a pre-credits sequence in which a man is running from unseen pursuers and a woman pretends to help him only so she can slit his throat. One gets the impression this scene was an afterthought, shot perhaps to provide something over which to play the incredibly cheesy theme song "Hold on to Love." Narration is used throughout, but particularly at the end of the film it seems like the voice over is trying to shore up holes in the story. The Dark Stranger is only seen briefly, but it's obvious he's played by the same actor who portrays Thom and nothing is ever made of this. Strangely, this all serves to give the film a dreamlike quality.
The image quality of the DVD copies I've seen (both seem to be culled from the same master) is passable but not great, with dust and scratches showing throughout the print and the image is generally pretty soft. The biggest problem is that the aspect ratio is all screwy. The image is presented full screen, but is "squashed" making everything taller and thinner than it should be. Actor Michael Greer was a lanky fellow to begin with, but this flaw turns him into an absolute beanpole. Despite being compressed like this, you can tell from the botched compositions that information is still lost on the left and right sides of the screen. What this film needs is a full digital restoration with widescreen presentation and an audio commentary from director Huyck and co-screenwriter Gloria Katz (both of whom penned the screenplays for American Graffiti, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Howard the Duck, with Huyck serving as director on the latter) so they can explain what the hell happened here. Anchor Bay, Dark Sky Films and several other companies have built reputations rescuing and restoring obscure horror films, and one of them needs to do just that with Messiah of Evil.