This week finds us digging even deeper into the Folk Horror-y rabbit hole started by Woodlands Dark And Days Bewitched and egged on further by the Cthulhu-centered Top 10 List from this past Tuesday. Lovecraft and Folk Horror have always been pretty firmly enmeshed for me what with their pagan cult rituals tied to gods of a distant, bygone era.
I also mentioned that Janisse’s documentary points out a big handfulla titles that I had not realized were folk horror. And that brings us to Messiah Of Evil, a movie that’s been on my watchlist for a good long minute but always got passed by for something else.
The first thing that struck me about it was the look. Yes, it’s got the look you’d expect from a 1973 flick, but beyond that, it has a distinctly giallo look and vibe to it. The lighting, shooting, even Marianna Hill’s hair fairly well screams “Made in Italy,” so much so that I had to check.
Imagine my surprise to see that it is, in fact, American and directed by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, that visionary husband-and-wife team who would, in 1986, bring us the glory, the spectacle that was Howard The Duck. Still, the convoluted plot, the opening murder that contributes zero to the story—holy Mario Bava, Batman.
Striking almost as quickly was the realization that Messiah Of Evil is in fact an awfully good take on “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” Huyck and Katz pretty well dispense with the genetic degeneration and return to the sea aspect of Lovecraft’s story, but the overall concept and many of the individual details remain pretty damn faithful. To be fair, I’m hardly unique in seeing this. It’s not a major revelation, especially not for anyone who’s ever read the story.
The focal point is Arletty (Hill) who has come to Point Dume (ho ho), California, seeking her estranged father who has implored her to never try to find him. She clearly ignores him, the scamp, and upon her arrival finds a weird little Eurotrash trio—Thom and his two sycophants Laura and Toni. The three of them are inexplicably plying some local with cheap booze and questioning him in their hotel room when, just as inexplicably, Arletty shows up.
Like ya do.
Charlie relates the story of “the dark stranger” who appeared years ago at the time of a blood moon. Well, this dark stranger, it turns out, was a Donner Party survivor who became some kinda cannibal/vampire thing who brought his nutritional proclivities to Point Dume.
Like ya do.
The Point Dume locals, like Lovecraft’s Innsmouth residents, are furtive and creepy. Unlike Innsmouth folk, they largely lack any tell-tale physical abnormalities. One notable exception is Bennie Robinson who plays an albino trucker and could pass really well for having what’s known as “the Innsmouth look” (IMDB says this is his only movie appearance, but I could swear I’ve seen him in something else).
The locals do, however, wander about in a trance-like state, often staring wordlessly at the moon. On one hand, It’s tough to pin down whether they’re vampires, cannibals, or zombies. On the other hand, it doesn’t matter, and it’s never clarified (adding even more to the movie’s giallo-tude). Even more unnerving, they show up en masse and in total silence on more than one occasion. The theater scene is particularly chilling and brings along some Carnival Of Souls energy.
Ultimately, in an escape sequence highly reminiscent of the end of Let’s Scare Jessica To Death, Thom attempts to flee with Arletty who, like Lovecraft’s Robert Olmstead, is beginning to feel the beginnings of her own transformation (interestingly, in his book Nightmare Movies: Horror On Screen Since The 1960’s, Kim Newman refers to both movies as “underrated” and “neglected”). I won’t give away the very end, but I think ol’ H.P. would have been okay with it.
Streaming- AMC+, Darkmatter, Epix, Fandor, Film Detective, Hoopla, Paramount+, Philo, Plex, Pluto, Prime, Roku Channel, Screambox, Shudder, Sling
Rent- Alamo On Demand, Prime
By the way PS—I haven’t seen Bennie Robinson anywhere else. I was thinking of stuntman Dar Robinson (no relation as far as I can discover) in his role as Moke in the Burt Reynolds movie Stick. He’s the guy who falls off the balcony, shooting on the way down. Phew. Now I’ll be able to sleep tonight.