I'm tempted to say that Messiah of Evil is good, but only by accident. Or good, but not on purpose. These are silly thoughts, of course: other than a very few heavily ironic examples, nobody starts out to make a movie without hoping that it turns out good. But it doesn't seem like Messiah of Evil could possibly have turned out well because that's how husband-and-wife filmmaking team Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz (he directed, she produced, they wrote the script together) wanted it to be. The film they seem to be aiming for is a frustrating, confounded mess that goes all-in on the most excruciating sort of ultra-pretentious art-horror indie filmmaking that the early 1970s could offer up.
But the film they actually made is pretty strange and effective and still definitely on the "arty" side of the "art-horror" scale, but not in a way that stomps all over the uncanny atmosphere that's easily the film's best trait. It's part of the first wave of post-Romero zombie films (among its several alternate titles, in fact, we find Return of the Living Dead, which triggered a lawsuit), following the model set by Night of the Living Dead in 1968, in which the undead are conceived as a hybrid of European vampires and Persian ghouls, with little or no actual "zombie" characteristics. Even within that cohort of movies (which includes titles like 1972's Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things and 1974's The House of Seven Corpses from America, though it was a bigger movement in Europe), Messiah of Evil is an outlier; it's even more of a Lovecraftian "the coastal town houses a cult of pure evil" film than a Romero-style zombie movie, and in some ways quite an amazing Lovecraftian film it is, too.
The plot - or rather, I should say, "the situation", since the massive obscurity of the plot is one of the film's most outwardly obvious characteristics. So the situation is that a woman named Arletty (Marianna Hill) is driving towards Point Dune, California to meet with her father, a painter. She doesn't find him, only his diary, which she reads with a remarkable lack of urgency over the next few days, given how it outlines the death cult in Point Dune and his own feelings of being consumed by a nameless darkness and all. Arletty wanders into the path of a libertine, Thom (Michael Greer), who claims to be a son of the Portuguese nobility, and who has along with him a pair of beautiful female companions, Laura (Anitra Ford) and Toni (Joy Bang) - insofar as this is all a commentary on Vietnam-era America, which I think it's trying to be, I gather that these characters are an anti-counterculture joke (I cannot otherwise parse the social message of any of this). She also gets to know some of the local eccentrics, which is a misleading way of putting it - they're all eccentrics, the whole population of Point Dune. Eccentric and apparently losing touch of their core humanity. Arletty's father's diary (Royal Dano provides his voice, and eventualy his body) speaks to the slow crawl by which he starts to lose feeling itself, turning steadily into something physiologically very like a corpse that is still aware of itself. And Arletty starts to find herself undergoing the same process. All of this is apparently tied into a cult waiting every night at the Point Dune beach for the return of a promised messiah, 100 years after he first appeared, come down the mountains from the ill-fated, cannibalistic Donner Party.
Messiah of Evil is a hard damn thing to pin down. I'm not quite certain where its production fits into Huyck & Katz's filmography, but it sure as hell seems like this was they movie they made right on the heels co-writing George Lucas's unexpected smash hit American Graffiti. Though probably before it actually became a smash hit. At any rate, it was certainly the first commercial production Huyck directed, kicking off a career that would crash into a brick wall with the couple's fourth project, Howard the Duck. This is self-evidently the better film, of course, but it's also transparently a first film, and not, to appearances, a first film made with much of a budget. Messiah of Evil gets off to the worst possible start, hitting us with a massive monologue from Arletty with nearly Ed Wood-quality writing right at the very start, and pairing it with footage of her face blandly staring out of her car windshield as she drives. Then we hear dear ol' dad's narration. Then Arletty's voiceover comes back. During all of this, her face offers absolutely no hint of inflection, or any sensation that image and sound are meant to be consumed together at all. Maybe this is a deliberate, powerful choice by the filmmakers; but it feels like we're watching one of those barrel-scraping movies where they couldn't even afford sync sound, like Coleman Francis's infamous The Beast of Yucca Flats. And when a movie has made you think of The Beast of Yucca Flats in its first five minutes - or anywhere, but the first five minutes especially - it has gone awfully wrong in ways that badly need to be fixed.
Impressively, Messiah of Evil does end up managing to fix itself, though not until Arletty starts to uncover the wrongness in Dune Point. For the first while, it's just a bad movie, with terrible acting and generally crummy dialogue, and visuals that sure don't appear to be very impressive, as much as one can tell through the layer of mud caking all currently extant transfers. The miraculous alchemy isn't that Messiah of Evil suddenly turns good at any point - the acting, in particular, remains comically atrocious throughout - but that it somehow uses its badness as a tool, rather than a limitation. As the film depicts increasingly weird, threatening, and ultimately violently behavior, the very film itself seems to have become possessed by a spirit of evil.
Take, for example, the film's relatively famous grocery store scene (the only famous thing about it), in which Laura is herded into an aisle by carnivorous ghouls, looking like perfectly normal humans except for the rage on their faces. And then set upon and devoured in a bloodless, but upsettingly protracted, scene. It's an amazing nugget of horror, made all the more powerful by the blandness of the setting - an American supermarket, with all of the flat white lighting and dingy floor tiles that implies - and the total lack of any kind of zombie makeup on the monsters: it's one of the best examples of raw terror seeping into a quotidian setting that is, to me, the essence of all great cinematic horror. The scene would be a stand-out anywhere, but here, it feels like some kind of magic. "Wait, so Huyck could do this? Then why has the whole movie been so chintzy and overdone?" was my response, more or less. The intrusion of virtuosic horror filmmaking like this into the rest of the movie makes the whole thing feel instantly unsafe, because not only can we not trust the film's world, but we cannot even trust the film's aesthetic. And this is why I call Messiah of Evil "good, by accident" - the things that work are given additional force because of how much this acts and looks like a run-of-the-mill bad movie, and if that was Huyck's intent, he's braver than I could ever have imagined.
The supermarket scene is a showy example, but there are a lot of smaller, more atmosphere-driven examples I could have offered. The film is, after all, sublimely atmospheric, creating a world that feels baffling and wrong, in no small part because of those same cues that we're just watching a bad movie. Maybe we are watching a bad movie, but one that's so good a creating the aura of cosmic dread that Lovecraft's work thrived on, and which hardly ever made into movies successfully, that it almost doesn't make a difference. Good or bad, the important thing is that Messiah of Evil is profoundly creepy: it's an amazing success at instilling the sensation of waiting for something awful and nightmarish to happen, without it ever quite showing up, and that makes it utterly splendid as horror.