MESSIAH OF EVIL ***** USA 1973 90 mins Dir: Willard Hyuck (and Gloria Katz)
Fresh from film school and en-route to high profile gigs writing major George Lucas / Steven Spielberg blockbusters, Willard Hyuck took much from Lovecraft and Italian cinema, alongside INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS for this brilliantly eerie and unique 70’s American art-horror film. It specifically echoes CARNIVAL OF SOULS and LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH in its deliberate pacing and almost indescribably eerie mood, but the European look and feel, the extraordinary widescreen cinematography and some stand-out set pieces put it in a class all of its own.
Following a startling opening scene of matricide, it follows Marianna Hill’s arrival in the remote artist colony of Point Dune, where she finds the peculiar behaviour of the locals reinforced by the descriptions in her Dad’s ominous diaries of “pale men with shapeless eyes and shadowy figures”. Cinematographer Stephen M Katz – himself later to shoot THE BLUES BROTHERS and GODS AND MONSTERS – collaborates with legendary art director Jack Fiske to craft one of American cinema’s most visually extraordinary horror movies: oppressive murals dominate alongside imposing shadows and surrealistic primary colours. Few lines of dialogue in the movie capture its overwhelmingly sinister tone as the warning: “If the cities of the world were destroyed tomorrow, they would all be rebuilt to look like Point Dune”. Casting is key, with unique-looking actors like Elisha Cook and Bennie Robertson (unforgettable as a mouse-eating oddball) adding to the unease. Even more so than Romero, director Katz finds discomfort in everyday locations: a feeding frenzy in a supermarket and a terrifying accumulation of menace in an initially deserted cinema rank as two of the most terrifying sequences in 70’s horror. Ultimately, it’s among the bleakest entries in the realm of infection-cinema, climaxing with a sense of hopelessness as powerful as any of Romero’s strongest movies and reinforced by the haunting narration: “They’ll take you one by one…and no one will hear you scream…” Prepare for nightmares.
Review by Steven West