Vibe of the Month: August – Messiah of Evil (1973)

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It’s August. It’s sticky and hot and all I’m craving is the beach (still). A ton of planets are retrograde and it feels like the world is ending, emotionally. All of that considered, my vibe for the month is Messiah of Evil.

I’ve wanted to talk about the film for a while because it was such a fun surprise when I first watched it. For a low budget, basically forgotten horror film I thought it was pretty great. It’s genre without being totally cliché – campy, vaguely trashy, nicely shot, creepy and the costume design is on point. What more could you want from a vintage genre film?

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Shot in California in the early ’70’s, the film follows Arletty (Marianna Hill) as she visits a small seaside town in search of her father. He’s an artist who’s moved to this small town to work, but his sporadic letters have stopped and she’s concerned about him.

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The people in town pretend to not know who her father is (even though they display his art at a local gallery), but she meets Thom (Michael Greer), an art collector who is coincidentally also looking for her dad. Thom has two companions with him – a model, Laura (Anitra Ford), and Toni (Joy Band).

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Arletty reads through her father’s journals as she looks for him. He describes being taken over by some sort of strange illness that turns people into the walking dead. Arletty and her new friends also encounter strange townspeople who have a taste for raw meat and a habit of going down to the beach to stare at the moon as they wait for their leader to return.

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Apparently the filmmakers ran out of money and couldn’t fully create the film they envisioned due to lack of funds and a bungled production. But Messiah of Evil still stands-out despite its limitations. It has a surreal and dreamy quality that’s in the same vein as Carnival of Souls and anything by David Lynch.

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There are some deeply unsettling and creepy sequences in the film where the zombie-like citizens accost the group at different points and when Artletty starts to succumb to the plague that’s infected the town.

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Plus, it just looks really nice. Arletty’s father’s house is both gorgeous and unsettling. It has huge windows and faces the beach with an interior that looks like a love den.

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But the house is also covered in paintings of anonymous people dressed in black that seem to stare at you wherever you go.

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At times, the film reminds me of Suspiria with its use of wide-shots, shadows and shades of red, blue and purple.

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Not to build it up to tear it all down, but full disclosure: the film isn’t perfect. The production constraints are obvious in that there are a lot of plot holes and scenes that feel as if they’re missing pieces. For me it adds to the dreaminess, but it can sometimes be distracting. And intentionally or not, the film is funny and pretty ridiculous.

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There are also some underlying themes around father-daughter relationships. That Arletty’s father would cut off contact from her and isolate himself suggests a rift that never gets any attention. One of Thom’s “companions” looks young enough to be a teenager, making her feel more like a daughter than a girlfriend. There’s also the opening scene where a man running away from someone is lured to his death by a young girl. I don’t know if these little moments are coincidences or saying something more, but a part of me wonders if the film was always intended to be vaguely trashy.

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The film’s visuals are what really sold it for me, so unless you’re watching the restored blu-ray version I don’t think it’s really worth it. The majority of prints of the film that are available are so bad – washed out with garbled sound – but the restored version is out of print. It’s a bit of a relic, but worth the effort.

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If you’re watching this for the vintage fashion, the blu-ray is essential to really get a look at the wardrobe. It’s early-70’s style without feeling costume-y – I would honestly wear all of their outfits. And if you’re as a big a fan of Lana del Rey as I am, you’ll appreciate the resemblance the lead actress has with her.

After watching it, it’s now become a dream of mine to remake the film with Lana del Rey. Should any producers be reading this, hit me up and lets talk about the script. Otherwise, please don’t steal my idea.

Image Credit: FilmGrab