Messiah of Evil (1971)
If you love your daddy, you will kill him. You can’t bury him. You got to burn him.
--The Town Drunk
This is one of those historically remote films that often makes its way onto mass-produced DVD movie collections with open copyrights. Despite this status, this film is well-made and difficult to categorize. It’s a sophisticated, complex, well-acted, and correctly timed piece of celluloid dread. It begins with the 70s cliché of the narrator speaking to the audience from the walls of the asylum where they await some undetermined fate, but after this sequence it moves into different territory. Many films from this period were often set in the art culture that was so prevalent at the time, in this case pop art. Of all the films that attempt to capture the subtleties of the mad artist vibe and the inherent violence in the aesthetics of mechanical reproduction, this one is perhaps the best at projecting the soul-despairing vibe of the period. It chronicles the slow deterioration of a beach community into an unreal fever dream reminiscent of Virginia Woolf or Thomas Ligotti.
Marianna Hill plays a mentally unstable woman who comes to the artist colony of Point Dune to rescue her father who has been writing strange letters detailing a collective madness that grips his community. Here the story has an almost Lovecraftian vibe. Her father exists as John Carradine’s disembodied voice, present to the viewer through his numerous, increasingly unhinged journal entries. Enter Michael Greer, who plays some sort of British Count or something. He becomes an unflappable ally of the protagonist and would-be suitor. He displays a strange equanimity in the face of madness, sporting hair that makes him look like a member of the Process Church. He is an interesting character—at once erudite and selfishly condescending. Traveling with him is the sleek Anitra Ford and the youthful Joy Bang. The three of them are living in what the kids these days call a polyamorous relationship. Bang’s character also broaches one of those key seventies tropes, the sexualized, underage girl. Sexual jealousy over Greer’s interest in his troubled host quickly emerges as a key narrative tension. It is also worth noting that the set is as much a character as any of the actors. The beachfront bungalow they are living in, with its pop-art wall paintings, is crucial to giving the movie its unique feel.
While the west coast bungalow in the remote artist colony town might be an ideal setting for these nontraditional characters to feel welcome, there are fires down by the beach and the apocalypse is brewing. Soon the protagonists will find themselves locked in a struggle with rat-eating cannibals that pass as normal citizens. The film does a good job establishing a sense of dread as the community is swept by a bizarre religious movement led by the mysterious dark messiah. One of the things that makes the film work is that the characters seem genuine. They are flawed, but not coded along some axis of good or evil. They are written in way that makes it clear that each one has their own motives. They stand in stark contrast to the pop-art figures on the wall. Clearly the screenwriters took their time with this one and there is plenty of interesting dialogue.
In terms of key themes, there are perhaps two that are worth considering. I think this may be the result of having a script that was co-written and likely shifted in focus to capture the growing Manson energy that was sweeping the cinema of the early 70s. The first theme is the increasing anxiety produced by the return of the father, who is still lurking out there in the surf. As the prodigal daughter anticipates the return of her eccentric father, it’s hard not to read this character dilemma through the lens of traumatic sexual abuse. The ultimate telos of this confrontation is suitably dark and strange. What struck me more forcefully though, are the political overtones. What happens when the cool, upscale beach town is overrun by a bunch of Nixonian squares? Yes, you can definitely draw red state/blue state parallels in this one. The cannibals are clearly extensions of the soulless pop art that decorates the bungalow, each of them devouring the soul of the culture as well as its flesh. They stand opposed to freedom and creativity. America is still a land where more progressive individuals tend to migrate to certain geographical regions, seeking to wall themselves off from the decaying heartland of the country and the provincial values that it represents. In this film, there is nowhere to run. The squares will find and devour you.
Deep readings aside, the film is good entertainment. No real jump scares, but more of a progressive dread. Also, despite the presence of a challenging relational subtext, the movie does not contain an immense amount of sexual exploitation. There are no protracted nude or sex scenes. When the violence ramps up, there are some very original and effective sequences that are worth watching. It is definitely an enlightening film. Rule number one: Never ignore the town drunk.
Rating: 3 Hits