“I’m as old as the hills,” whispers Charlie, as he opens the motel door to let Arletty in. “Mama delivered me herself. She took me from between her legs, a bloody little mess, just about to feed me to the chickens. My daddy said, maybe we could use a boy, Lottie. That’s how I came into the world.”
I was taken aback upon my first viewing of the strange, surreal masterpiece that didn’t put Willard Hyuck and Gloria Katz on the map. For one, it doesn’t make a lot of narrative sense. Things happen, seemingly for no reason, and create narrative rabbit trails that lead nowhere. Characters make decisions that no real, live human being on planet Earth would ever make except, maybe, in their dreams.
In some sense, then, Messiah of Evil (1973) was a trailblazer. ‘Dream logic’ has been an occasional feature in Western Cinema since its inception, but rarely in mainstream releases.
Instead, the sort of things one might have expected to find in an old Robert Wiene expressionist piece are juxtaposed into a fairly traditional story: Messiah of Evil hits approximately the same beats as Lovecraft’s Shadow Over Innsmouth, a much-beloved classic by a well-regarded author.
And all this before Lynch, before Ken Russell, before the rise of the popular surrealists. There are sequences in Messiah of Evil that might have impressed Buñuel. But the film is practically a secret – known only by the profoundly curious, and then loved only by those unpretentious enough to admit to its hokey charms.
There is no ‘evil messiah’ in this film. Legend has it that something like an entire act was omitted – not in the editing room, but during filming.
There are a few different versions of the tale, which might be a hint that it’s apocryphal. One version goes that the distributors ran into hard times and had to seek out a partner company who didn’t take very kindly to the sheer angularity of Katz and Hyuck’s script.
They demanded that it be rewritten to more closely resemble the now increasingly popular ‘Zombie’ genre. As a result, most of the horror in the finished film comes from townsfolk who eat raw meat and chase young women. It holds its own against anything Romero ever shot, and even the compromised sequences are delightfully surreal.
One such set piece has a young woman, Toni, watching a western in an empty theater in the coastal town of Point Dune. Each time the camera cuts away from the screen and back to her, there’s another well-dressed patron in the seats behind her. Eventually, she gets the clue that her life is in danger and tries to flee discreetly. Unfortunately, this is a horror film, and her efforts will be in vain.
Another (less colorful) version of the story is that the studio simply ran out of money – and crew member stop showing up when you don’t pay them. So Katz and Hyuck had to roll up their sleeves and cut the movie together mostly on their own, with large portions of the script left unfilmed.
This proved somewhat of a blessing in disguise, however, because the disjointed nature of the released film only adds to its surreality. If the shooting script was ‘nightmarish’ in the most literal sense, it is only heightened by the sheer incoherence of the whole affair.
The lead actor had announced in an interview prior to the shooting of the film that he would be playing ‘the devil’s son’ in an upcoming picture. This was the film he was referring to, but in the theatrically-released version, you would never take him for a daemon.
In any case, though, the bones of the film are thoroughly conventional: It’s that age-old fable of the remote town that abandoned Christianity to embrace some ancient pagan Boogeyman, usually in return for prosperity – that the fish will come back, or the crops won’t die, or the black plague won’t ravage their borders.
The same tale is adapted later by Stuart Gordon in what I think is his most fascinating misfire, Dagon, and even more recently in Christopher Smith’s modern horror classic, Black Death – each of which have drastically different subtexts.
I’m not sure Messiah of Evil has a subtext. Perhaps the screenplay did, but the finished film is so incomprehensible that it’s difficult to gather much from its narrative. Or maybe it’s simply meant to be an audio-visual experience more than a story, and certainly more than a statement.
Were it released today, I might suspect it was a not-so-thinly-veiled parable about the Religious Right: A small coastal town – the paragon of family-values, pulled straight from a cozy Christmas novel that my grandmother might have read by the fireside – consecrates itself to some foreign gods, whose ethereal demands prove hair-raising. Beneath the veneer of Reaganesque wholesomeness and strange piety lurks something darker than dark.
In 1973, however, such a movement had yet to materialize, so it’s unlikely that this was the Faustian deal Katz and Hyuck had in mind – if they had anything in mind. In the film’s most iconic sequence, a man, Thom, wakes up and turns to Arletty.
“I was dreaming.” He says. “We were in a forest. It was snowing. The trees were wet. And you were looking up. And I asked you what you were thinking.”
Arletty smiles. He goes on, “You said you were thinking about all the people who were born and died. All the trees went on living. And we came to a village and we spent the night in a wood room. The next day it was so cold – we stayed in bed to keep warm.”
As soon as he’s finished, the townsfolk break through some overhead windows and knock over the bleakly painted walls of the room. Arletty’s father is an artist, and the drywall was his canvas. Every corner of the room is painted up to look like civilization. The walls are painted like Point Dune, to be exact – but darker. Throughout the film we’ve been led to believe that something is hidden in their shadowy images, and now we see what it is.
In the aforementioned theater scene, Toni rolls her eyes upon realizing that she has walked into a western ‘shoot-’em-up’ flick. The title flashes across the silver screen, Gone With The West, followed by a montage that features a black cowboy shooting out with a trio of white assailants. This image is pregnant enough with associations, but the scene continues.
As the patrons multiply behind her, she runs down the aisle to escape – unsuccessfully – and is overtaken as she reaches the front rows. They murder her, and her blood paints the silver screen red. She’s gone with the West too, I guess. But where? Where has the West gone? Where can the West go? Perhaps only back where we came from if we carry on as we have been.
We’ve seen a black cowboy in a firefight, outnumbered by his white opponents. We don’t know if he’s the sheriff or the outlaw. But we do know that the years that are depicted in such films were not kind to black Americans – that a real Sheriff in a real town in the old ‘Wild West’ might not have acknowledged that there were, in fact, black Americans, that such films as would include a black sheriff in the ‘Wild West’ were engaging in a bit of well-intentioned revisionism.
So she may be watching a revisionist picture, or she may be watching a film where a group of ‘Scandinavian heroes’ gun down some ‘predatory black man’ in America’s ‘Glory Days’. In either case, the imagery speaks: Our past is not what we think it is. We have not been the ‘saviors of the universe’, the long-awaited Messiahs who liberated the new worlds from their primitive gehennas.
Or maybe we have. But not the way we imagine that we have. If we redefine Messiah, so that the long-awaited one is not the crucified, but a crucifier, then we might be one yet. There are subtle references to Wagner throughout, which could mean nothing at all. Or could be a nod to his famous Nietzschean sympathies. To this day, Wagner is a calling card for various faux-sophisticated white power movements, and all of their ugly cousins.
It was, to no small extent, our elite ubermenschian fantasies that fueled our insatiable quests for expansion from the 19th century onward. The impulse, of course, had always been there, but the Nietzschean school endowed our expansionist proclivities with intellectual currency. The conquest of the universe became a ‘progressive cause’.
Where can the West go? In 1973, Vietnam. And we’d keep going, from conquest to conquest, always under ‘benevolent’ pretenses – usually to liberate someone, somewhere, from something. We have always been a pack of wolves, painted up to look like civilization. The ‘Messiah of evil’ was cut from the titular film, supposedly. Except it wasn’t. It’s always been here – it’s always been us, just beneath our neatly painted surfaces.
Around the halfway point of the film, we hear the voice of Arletty’s father. “If the cities of the world were destroyed tomorrow, they would all be rebuilt to look like Point Dune.” He says. “Entirely normal. Quiet. Silent but with a shared horror. I know what’s hiding out beneath it’s stuccoed skin.”
[Gloria Katz & Willard Hyuck’s Messiah of Evil can be streamed for free on Amazon Prime instant video.]
》CORRECTION: I originally suggested that Gloria Katz co-directed the film, but have since learned that she was incorrectly given a director credit.《