Messiah of Evil Blu-ray Review and Comparison
Blu-ray Release: October 24, 2023
Audio: English LPCM 2.0 Mono
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 89:49
Directors: Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz
A woman named Arletty (Marianna Hill) arrives in a sleepy seaside town after receiving unsettling letters from her father, only to discover the town is under the influence of a strange cult that weeps tears of blood and hungers for human flesh. (From Radiance’s official synopsis)
The stalwart classics of ‘70s North American horror were largely made by a group of men now known as the Masters of Horror, a title bestowed upon John Carpenter, George A. Romero, Tobe Hooper, Larry Cohen, David Cronenberg, Wes Craven, and Brian De Palma, among other honorary members who made one or two films that are considered part of the era’s genre canon, such as Steven Spielberg and William Friedkin. These filmmakers and their movies saturated the zeitgeist well into the ‘90s and early ‘00s, solidified by celebrated critical tomes on the subject, for example, Kim Newman’s Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s (Bloomsbury, 2nd edition, 2011), heavily-hyped DVD reissues, and an anthology TV series called, appropriately enough, Masters of Horror (2005-2007). Eventually, as interest extended beyond the established classics and into foreign horror, DIY movies, and the realms of low-budget regional filmmaking, the canon expanded to include less prolific directors and films that were not particularly successful when originally released.
This secondary ‘cult’ or ‘underground’ canon is itself bolstered by genre-based literature, like Stephen Thrower’s NIGHTMARE USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents (FAB Press, 2007), and, of course, boutique video labels. It’s harder to define than the Masters of Horror canon, because it welcomes inclusion of personal favorites – the more obscure the better – but there are some titles universally beloved enough to make the short list, including John Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971), Richard Blackburn’s Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (1973), and the subject of this review, Gloria Katz & Willard Huyck’s Messiah of Evil (1973).
Messiah of Evil incorporates several key elements of underground canon:
A central female lead who is struggling with mental illness, grief, or some other type of hysteria, offering room for a feminist reading of the film.
Esoteric plotting and characterizations that welcome metaphorical interpretations.
References, however ambiguous, to the premature death of the late ‘60s counterculture.
Creative, avant-garde production design and cinematography. This is one aspect in which Messiah of Evil excels, because its gorgeous, impressionistic, pop art sets are fashioned into the fiction of the story as the work of Arletty’s dead father. Additionally, artists' tools are used as a sort of weapon during the climax.
Messiah of Evil is sort of the flesh-eating zombie companion piece to Let’s Scare Jessica to Death’s alternative take on vampires. There are few established rules for the monsters and only vague indications as to if they’re a supernatural event, the result of an infectious outbreak, or some kind of cult activity. Their behavior is reminiscent of an amalgamation of Romero’s living dead and the pod people of Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), both creatures that would be recontextualized several years after Messiah of Evil’s release in Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Philip Kaufman’s 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake. What’s especially interesting is that, through the haze of their delirious screenplay, Huyck & Katz had already somewhat recontextualized body-snatching aliens and cannibalistic ghouls as metaphors for the failure of counterculture and obsessive consumerism. Their ideas might not be as refined as Romero and Kaufman’s, but Huyck & Katz turned in their homework first.
A lot of the film’s lack of logic can apparently be blamed on the fact that it was never really finished. Messiah of Evil started shooting in 1971 and, while Huyck told Tim Lucas that principle photography was complete, Katz claims that the money ran before two scenes were shot. Either way, there was no cash left for post-production and the directors were unable to sell their rough cut. The incomplete footage was effectively repossessed by investors, re-edited and scored without Huyck or Katz’ input, then finally distributed years later under the titles Messiah of Evil, Return of the Living Dead, Revenge of the Screaming Dead, and the rather frank Dead People. It is, by most accounts, an incomplete movie, often unexpectedly to its benefit, as it defies the expectations of normal storytelling and filmmaking.
Despite and because of all of its production problems, Messiah of Evil is a uniquely frightening experience, dripping with dread, unexpectedly graphic violence, and unexplainably hypnotic artistry. The plot ends up being held together by narration, something that associate editor Morgan Fisher claims was built into the original script, which gives the film a welcome H.P. Lovecraft-like structure, in which a weary, possibly dead party conveys the inexplicable horror to the main protagonist via found writings, often letters or journals. The performances are unusually strong and there are flashes of wit throughout. A few subtler jokes come at the expense of Michael Greer’s pretentious, womanizing male lead, Thom (a sort of meta-humor, considering Greer was an out-and-proud gay man), while some particularly absurd moments assure us that the filmmakers are in on the laugh, such as the scene where Anitra Ford is offered a ride by an albino trucker with blank-faced zombies sitting in his pickup bed. She looks everyone up and down, smiles, shrugs, exclaims “What the hell?,” and climbs aboard.
Huyck & Katz didn’t hit the big time with Messiah of Evil, but they were writing partners with George Lucas, which, combined with Huyck’s USC education, makes them sort of honorary members of the Movie Brat generation (a term coined by critic Pauline Kael) alongside Lucas, Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and De Palma. The couple co-wrote American Graffiti (1973) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) with Lucas, and were uncredited script doctors on Star Wars (1977). In the meantime, they directed the underseen coming-of-age comedy French Postcards (1979) and the Dudley Moore/Eddie Murphy vehicle Best Defense (1984). Best Defense was a critically reviled box office disappointment that ended up being a harbinger of what was to come, when, in 1986, Lucas hired Huyck & Katz to write and direct Howard the Duck, based on the Marvel Comics fourth-wall-breaking antihero created by Steve Gerber. That film was an astronomical failure that damaged Huyck, Katz, and Lucas’ careers and reputations almost irreparably. The three collaborated one last time for Mel Smith’s Radioland Murders (1994), co-written by Huyck & Katz, from a story by Lucas, who also produced. Unfortunately, it also bombed with critics and audiences.
Huyck & Katz’s career ended on a low note, but other people involved with the production of Messiah of Evil ended up at the center of the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s. Editor Scott Conrad, who made his feature debut with Messiah of Evil, went on to win an Academy Award for his work on Rocky (1976). Associate editor Billy Weber edited Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), along with Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979), followed by more Malick and Hill projects, and movies for Tony Scott and Tim Burton. Costume designer Rosanna Norton worked on the aforementioned Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural and Badlands, as well as De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and Carrie (1976). Star Marianna Hill played Fredo’s trophy wife in The Godfather Part II (1974) and, the same year he shot Messiah of Evil, actor and comedian Greer had a career-defining turn as a jailed drag queen in Harvey Heart’s Fortune and Men's Eyes (1971).
If you’d like to hear more about Messiah of Evil and other entries in the 1970s underground horror canon, check out Genre Grinder’s two-part Alternative 1970s American Horror podcast with Bill Ackerman, who wrote an essay for this very Blu-ray collection. Listen to Part 1 here Listen to Part 2 (where we discuss Messiah of Evil) here
Messiah of Evil’s production and distribution woes left it in a pseudo public domain limbo. Following its initial VHS release from Video Gems, it found itself on countless multi-movie DVDs from budget labels Brentwood, Alpha Video, TGG Direct, and, uh, Frolic Pictures? Code Red produced an anamorphic 35th anniversary disc in 2009, then released the first Blu-ray using the same scan in 2014. It was similar to all Code Red releases in that it wasn’t exactly lovingly restored, but it was a natural looking scan that vastly outperformed any DVD on the market. Like every Code Red disc, though, it went out-of-print pretty quickly. Radiance Films’ limited edition collection (which will be followed quickly by a standard edition) is a brand new, top-to-bottom restoration taken from a 4K scan of the “best-surviving elements” from the Academy Film Archive. I’ve included sliders to illustrate the difference between this transfer (left) and the Code Red transfer (right). Radiance’s disc is clearly superior, though the condition of those “best-surviving” elements keeps it from completely overtaking the Code Red BD, specifically in wider-angle shots, where both transfers struggle to juice detail. That said, there’s still notably more detail to be found in the remaster, along with tighter textures, better grain quality, and superior framing that reveals a little more information on all four sides. The major upgrade, though, is found in color vibrance and retiming, though, funnily enough, I imagine this is the area that will prove controversial with some fans. Radiance’s transfer is much more vivid and measurably warmer, which I think looks better and fits what I assume Huyck, Katz, and cinematographer Stephen Katz had in mind, given the film’s pop art qualities and use of color overall (noting that Huyck claims in an interview on this disc that he had helped grade a Blu-ray release of the film, surely referring to Code Red’s disc). On the other hand, I can imagine that some people will think the remaster is too bright and too vivid, and, while I prefer this look, I can’t deny that some of the higher key white levels do punch out fine details that otherwise exist on the Code Red transfer. Some of the shadows during the darkest sequences also absorb a bit of red, violet, and blue, rather than appearing purely black. Again, I think this is a worthwhile improvement all-around, but there are arguments to be made in favor of the old disc’s muted and moody look.
Messiah of Evil is presented in uncompressed LPCM 2.0 and its original mono sound. The tracks are in decent condition with a low sound floor, little notable hiss, and not many pops or cracks. The mix is sharp and clean with tidy effects and dialogue, especially anything added in post, like ADR and obvious foley work. All the stuff recorded on set shows inherent signs of basic technological limitations, leading to somewhat muffled or echoey performance quality. Phillan Bishop is credited with composing all of the “electronic music,” which I suppose covers the majority of the score. There are a handful of loud sound effects, but the analogue synth screams and soft, moody cues are usually the dominant element, alongside dialogue and the occasional diegetic music.
Like the Code Red disc, this one has the producer-imposed song "Hold Onto Love" removed from the opening and closing credits at the request of Katz and Huyck.
Commentary with Kim Newman and Stephen Thrower – You probably don’t believe me, but I actually wrote references to Newman and Thrower’s books and histories as horror tastemakers without realizing that they’d recorded a commentary track together for this release. It was a very pleasant surprise, especially since I don’t think the two very prolific commentators and interviewees have ever collaborated on an extra before. Anyway, this is a fantastic track with a friendly tone and loads of information about Messiah of Evil, the counterculture era of American horror, the larger careers of the cast & crew, and more. Highly recommended and screen-un-specific enough to work as a standalone discussion.
Archival interview with co-writer/director Willard Huyck (37:34, no video) – Originally broadcast as part of the podcast in October of 2019, Mike White of the Projection Booth Podcast talks to Huyck (via phone, so the audio quality dips in and out) about his film education and early projects (including a description of the scripting process), meeting Katz and other future collaborators, the tumultuous making-of and release Messiah of Evil (including some vague description of the unshot sequences), the cast, Lovecraft influences, and post-Messiah of Evil projects, like Howard the Duck.
What the Blood Moon Brings: Messiah of Evil, A New American Nightmare (56:55, HD) – This new documentary was co-directed by Dima Ballin and Kat Ellinger, who also recently collaborated on Orchestrator of Storms: The Fantastique World of Jean Rollin (2022). It explores Messiah of Evil’s place in the American independent/underground movements of the 1970s, its use of genre, contemporaries, and larger themes. It is narrated by Jean-Paul Ouellette, features clips from the film and others that inspired its imagery, along with interviews with Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland & Company, 2011) author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento (University of Minnesota Press, 2010) author Maitland McDonagh, Guy Adams (who I believe the author of The World House [Harpercollins, 2010]), La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film (Scarecrow Press, 2006) author Mikel Koven, and A Green and Pagan Land: Myth, Magic and Landscape in British Film and Television (McFarland, 2018) author David Huckvale.
American Gothic and Female Hysteria (21:31, HD) – Kat Ellinger returns for a visual essay, created specifically for this collection, which explores classic Gothic, the modernized American variation(s) of Gothic, the genre’s connections to colonial guilt and religious mania, important authors, and the woman-centered narratives that helped inspire movies like Messiah of Evil, Robert Altman’s Images (1972), and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death.
It might be worth hanging onto that Code Red disc, because it still features a collection of exclusive extras, including a commentary with Huyck & Katz, Remembering Messiah of Evil documentary, and two short films by the directors.
The images on this page are taken from the Radiance and Code Red BDs and sized for the page. Note that there will be some JPG compression.