Thursday, June 9, 2011

Messiah of Evil

NetFlix (Not Available)
IMDB 6.2/10
My Rating: 8/10
Amazon Special Edition DVD

A young woman travels to a small seaside town, Point Dune, to find her father.  There, she encounters his deserted and strangely haunting house and a trio of people investigating unusual activities in the area.  The increasingly bizarre behavior of the townspeople builds to a horrifying state of chaos.

I have a special passion for the surreal, arthouse horror films of the 70's.  I think this started when I first saw Phantasm on the Late, Late Show.  The sense that it was a movie that could literally go anywhere, do anything, and wasn't going to play by the expected rules of a scary movie... I loved it, and moreso, I loved the beautiful cinematography of so many of the scenes and the way they were visually assembled.  Later I discovered the lush colorscapes of Dario Argento and I was hooked.  Messiah of Evil is another of these little gems, a beautifully assembled microbudget indie horror treasure that's been mostly forgotten with time.

I have to stress a few points - This is a love-it-or-hate-it movie, for one.  People generally give it ratings of either 8-10 or 1-2, with little in the middle.  A lot of viewers will fire it up and see the dime store opening murder scene, hear the Dark Shadows-esque narration, and roll their eyes and go watch Rob Zombie's Halloween.  This is fine, and they are cheeseheads.  The rest of us have a treat in store.  It's a movie all about slow building dread.  There are shocking bits, true (In fact, it has some of the most shocking scary scenes in horror films, IMO), but overall the mood is somber and mounting doom...  It plays very much like a Lovecraft story rendered to film, providing something unsettling at every turn.  Also, amusingly, I can recommend it to any fans of Dean Koontz's abortive "Moonlight Bay" series, never finished, which had a similar atmosphere of creeping dread in a seaside town full of people "becoming".

Our heroine returns to Point Dune to find her father, who's gone missing.  What she finds instead is his empty house, a home totally painted with shadow-scapes of silhouetted people.  Townsfolk are reluctant to talk and often downright bizarre, and eventually she falls in with a trio of characters led by a sort of young RPG adventurer - A fellow who seems to have come here because there's dire goings-on to poke into, and this is how he has fun.  The warnings get worse, the signs grow more ominous, and the town begins to disintegrate around them as people slip into somnambulistic zombie-like madness, all in preparation for the return of a terrifying "Man in Black" from the ocean depths.

When I first saw this, my reaction was very much, "What the hell?" and I thought it was entertaining but middling.  A second viewing sucked me into the mood more, and I've found it gets better with repeat watching.  It is not so much a story as it is a series of surreal events loosely strung together which play like a half-remembered nightmare.  Dream logic abounds.  Why do the people gather on the beaches each night to stare into the sky?  Because.  Why are the locals in the supermarket at midnight eating raw meat from the butcher's counter?  Because.  I have to say, it can creep you the hell out.  It isn't full of moments that will make you jump off the couch, but rather sequences that will make you terribly uneasy - It's impossible, for instance, to ever imagine being comfortable in the artist's painted home.

I can't conceive of sleeping in a house so filled with pale, staring figures on every wall.  In many ways, the Point Dune house is far more disturbing than the Overlook managed to be.  But that's the movie in a nutshell - Imagery.  You can discuss and debate the underlying plot afterwards, but what sticks with you are the visuals:

The visuals and the vignettes, at least - Characters meet their various fates in enclosed scenes that are miniature horror films unto themselves.  One girl finds peril at a late night grocery store, another foolishly goes to kill time at a cinema showing Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye and we're treated to a standout scene as undead (?) and mindwashed townsfolk gradually fill the seats around her until she realizes just how odd her fellow patrons are.  One review called the film, "A perfect microcosmic nightmare world" and I fully agree - It takes you to a disturbing place where nothing that you know makes sense, and the dead must be burned, not buried...

So!  Watch if you dare.  But remember, "They're coming here. They're waiting at the edge of the city. They're peering around buildings at night, and they're waiting."

A word about versions - This film has been available in the public domain for many years now.  One can find it on a variety of cheap, multi-movie DVD packs, or download it from any movie site.  However, the public domain print is a cropped VHS-quality piece that thoroughly loses much of the power of the imagery due to the poor resolution and lack of widescreen.  Code Red has recently produced a remastered, high quality print of this for DVD and that's the version I have linked to in the Amazon link at the top of this article.  There are other versions of the movie floating around on Amazon for much less (They're selling the public domain copy smacked to DVD for $8, compared to the $22 price of the Code Red remaster).  Beware!  This is definitely a case where it's worth the extra cash for the better copy.