Messiah of Evil (1973) Retrospective

A young woman named Arletty (Marianna Hill) drives to the beach town of Point Dume, California, to visit her estranged father, an artist. She finds his beachfront house, abandoned. He left a diary in which he addresses her specifically. In it he complains about darkness consuming the town, and horrible nightmares he is having, and implores Arletty to never, ever look for him. His letter tells her to talk to the owner of the art gallery, who sells his paintings. The gallery owner says he has none of her father’s paintings, does not sell them, no one ever comes in looking to buy his works, and says he doesn’t know where he went. He says Point Dune is “an artist colony” and he only vaguely remembers her father (his paintings are eerie pop art portraits of groups of people in black, white, and gray, standing; the men are always dressed in black suits, white shirts, and black ties, like dead men at a funeral). It is never clear if these are townspeople, or figures from his visions, or both.

Arletty meets a visiting Portuguese-American aristocrat Thom (Michael Greer) and his two extremely provocative, groupie-like female companions, Toni (Joy Bang) and Laura (Anitra Ford). Back at his motel, Thom interviews Charlie, (Elisha Cook, Jr.) the local town eccentric. Charlie speaks at length about “the blood moon” and “the dark stranger” and how he has lived through both. He says very soon it will be the 100 year anniversary of the first appearance of the “dark stranger.” He will return, the moon will turn red, and the town will be overrun with evil. Charlie warns Arletty about her father, he says he is “one of them” now. Moments later he is murdered off screen. Thom, Toni, and Laura are kicked out of their hotel after interviewing Charlie, and stay at Arletty’s father’s house. Arletty reads through her father’s bizarre journal entries, in which he reveals his body temperature is 85 degrees, and he mentions fighting his “condition.” Meanwhile, each night, creatures gather on the beach in front of bonfires, staring straight up at the moon. The locals call it “The Waiting.”

Late one evening before making a trip to San Francisco, Laura goes into the local Ralphs supermarket, and is devoured by a hoard of vampires who are feasting on raw meat; the following day, Toni goes to see a movie, and is also eaten by the other theater patrons, who are the same creatures. That evening, the “blood moon” rises, and the town’s residents turn into vampires, and the titular “Messiah of Evil” returns. Through voice-over of Charlie’s taped interviews, we learn that this “Messiah” was a former minister and a Donner Party survivor from the late 19th century turned vampire/cannibal, who has come to spread his new “religion” and lead his people up the coast and inland. While Thom hides, two policemen in riot gear drive up and fire their guns into a swarm of vampires; however, one of the cops suddenly begins to bleed, causing his now-former partner to shoot him and flee. Undaunted, the undead cop shoots his former ally, and he and the other vampires go to feast on his flesh.

Thom returns to the house, where he finds Arletty half-crazed; she is cold, cannot feel pain, and thinks she may be dead or undead. She even finds a bug crawling around in her mouth and immediately vomits up various beetles, mealworms and an anole. While Thom was gone, Arletty was visited by her father, who had warned her not to follow him and begs her to leave to tell the world about Point Dune. He then attacks her, reluctantly giving in to his “vampire” urges, and after she stabs him with garden shears before burning him alive. Startled by Thom, she stabs him in the arm with the shears. The two of them flee to the beach, but the ersatz vampires follow them, even in broad daylight. They swim out to the breakers, but Thom drowns. Arletty survives and is captured by the townspeople. Instead of killing her, she is let free under the condition that she spread word of the religious movement throughout California and the world. This causes her to be locked up in an insane asylum. Each day, all day, she sits in the sun painting, dreading the day the Messiah and his followers come to take her away.

In the late ’60s. “Gloria was at UCLA and I was at USC,” Huyck recalls, “and a friend told me that Roger Corman was showing a rough cut of The Wild Angels at UCLA, so we drove over. My friend knew Gloria and introduced us. She had just returned from France, and was wearing the first miniskirt I had ever seen, so I was very impressed.” The two started dating and, after Katz finished her work at UCLA, eventually began writing together. A screenplay collaboration between Gloria and a friend stalled when her partner ended up dropping out. “I told her I would help her finish it,” Huyck says, “so from then on we started working together.”

Their first professional writing gig was on an AIP film called The Devil’s 8 (1969). “It was basically because I couldn’t find a job,” Gloria says. “Willard was nice enough to ask me to collaborate with him.” Katz replaced John Millus as the co-writer on the project; “Gloria smelled much better than John,” Huyck laughs. It wasn’t long after that when they were approached by up-and-coming filmmaker George Lucas to join him on a screenplay based on his teenage years in Modesto, California, and the duo worked with Lucas on American Graffiti while he toiled on post-production for THX 1138 (1971). It was an exciting period for young filmmakers; studios were willing to take risks on fresh talent, and opportunities for work were plentiful.

While Gloria had immersed herself in film study, her brother Stephen pursued painting at CalArts. After graduating, he spent a few years trying to find his place in the art world. “I realized I had no talent as an artist, as a painter, after three years,” he remembers. “I found my way into photography by accident via shooting black-and-white photographs of a model with a Brownie camera.” While waiting tables, he met director Douglas Schwartz, who asked Stephen if he wanted to be an Assistant cameraman on his first feature film Savage Abduction (Cycle Psycho) (1973). “I really didn’t know what an assistant cameraman did, ’cause I was a still photographer. But he gave me the script and I read this thing, and I really didn’t know that people made these exploitation films. I had no idea.”

Stephen took the job and found himself working as a focus puller for cinematographer Bill Davies. Frequent delays in shooting forced Davies to leave before the movie was completed, so Katz stepped in. “I went up to the producer and Douglas and said, ‘You know, this has been an interesting experience, but I really hate my job and I want to go back. What I’d really like to do is shoot the movie.’ ” Katz applied his still photography experience to a violent rape scene shot the next day, and ended up impressing the director. “So I finished the last half of this film, and suddenly I got a phone call from Roger German saying, Jonathan Demme is producing this movie Angels Hard as They Come (1971). He invited me into his office, and I didn’t know who Jonathan Demme was, and he said, ‘Will you shoot Angels for him?’ And that was the beginning of my career.”

Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz

While Huyck and Katz were waiting for Lucas to find a studio interested in American Graffiti, they were approached with an intriguing opportunity. “A former agent called us and said that he could reuse $100,000 to make a movie,” Huyck says, “but it had to be a horror film. So we said, ‘Great.’ It was fine with us.” Unaware of current trends in the genre, the two writers set about creating a story that reflected their personal artistic sensibilities. “In film school,” Gloria explains, “we had spent our lives looking at Godard pictures, Truffaut pictures, Antonioni — so we were very influenced by those. I actually don’t think we had seen too many horror films.”

Huyck’s key touchstone was more literary: “The only influence, really, was H.P. Lovecraft. I had always loved his writing. We knew we wanted to make something about Los Angeles, and we thought it would be interesting to use the San Fernando Valley as a setting for a horror film, because it’s very mundane. So we set it in car lots and a grocery store and a cinema and things like that.” Conjuring both Lovecraft and their love of French and Italian cinema, the writers developed a simple yet effective narrative they felt could be shot quickly and efficiently.

“We had trouble, because the script was originally called Blood Virgin,” Huyck reveals, “and we couldn’t get actors to come in, it sounded so sleazy. So we called it, pretentiously. The Second Coming, which is from a Yeats poem.” Written just after WWI, said verse describes a dark scenario where “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” and “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere.” It’s a reference to the Bible’s Book of Revelation and the “second coming” of the Christ figure, spinning the end times. Thematically, it tied in well to the apocalyptic narrative but this title intimated a more adult spin on the project as well. “Then they thought it , was a sex movie,” Huyck laughs.

While it would be another year until Gerard Damiano’s Deep Throat would bring suburban couples into pornographic theaters, “adult films” had already become a major talking point. “I did an appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson right around the time of filming Messiah,” Ford recalls. “I plugged the movie, which was then called The Second Coming, with some tongue-in- cheek lines I’d written the night before. They brought the house down. Even the title brought titters from the audience.”

Marianna Hill

The principal roles were filled via the traditional auditioning route. “We had a casting person who was a friend of ours from film school,” Huyck says. “Marianna Hill came in, and of course, she had been in a Howard Hawks movie Red Line 7000 (1965) so that gave her some cred as far as we were concerned. Joy Bang was sort of an underground actress at the time, and Anitra Ford was mostly a model.” For many of the supporting roles, offers were extended to more seasoned actors. “We had people in mind for those parts like Elisha Cook Jr. and Royal Dano, because we were fans of their movies.” Their only conflict was with the original actor they had cast as the vagrant Charlie. “We had wanted Hank Worden,” Huyck continues, “because he had played sort of a crazy character in The Searchers. He wanted to do it, and his wife read the script and told him he couldn’t. So at that point, we got Elisha Cook Jr.”

Stephen recalls the ethereal Hill as “just a bit dotty. . .I don’t know if that’s the right word. But I think she was coming off Medium Cool (1969) with Haskell Wexler. That was her claim to fame, so we were very excited to have her.” Rounding out the cast was Greer in the pivotal character of Thom. “Our lead was hardly macho,” Huyck says. “Michael Greer was basically a female impersonator. But we were looking for a sort of effete and strange character, and he had that quality. It was probably the first role he had done without a dress.”

“What a character!” Stephen says of Greer. “And what a funny role for him to do, since he was one of the great female impersonators back then. I remember seeing him in a nightclub. He was amazing! And then to be working with him in this role, it was like, ‘Oh my God!’ It was really fun.”

Anitra Ford

Anitra Ford was making the difficult transition from modeling to acting. While she would later find fame as a long running model on TV’s The Price Is Right and in such well-regarded B pictures as The Big Bird Cage and Invasion of the Bee Girls, she was a virtual unknown in 1971. “The modeling industry was small in LA,” she notes. “Only a handful of girls could make a living at it, and it took all of my time to support my daughter and myself. From the beginning of my career as a model, I was working toward acting in film. Even though it took years to cross over, I never stopped working on my craft.”

Throughout the ’60s, Ford had studied with several respected acting teachers, including Corey Allen, who co-starred with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, and Jeff Corey, whose guidance helped her “turn a corner.” “I realized that the only way I could do it was to stop modeling completely and give acting my all. It was very scary to think about. But one day I did it: I jumped off the cliff, closed the door on modeling and declared myself an ‘actress.’ Within a month, I landed a role on The Odd Couple. ”

“What I recall most about the eclectic mix of personalities in Messiah is that each one was so unique and different,” Ford says. “I recall Michael Greer’s honesty and heart and, of course, his humor. I recall Marianna’s depth, beauty and vulnerability, which played so well into the film. Joy Bang’s effervescence and spirit were a rare gift. Elisha Cook Jr. held a beautiful space for us. He was very humble and giving as an actor, but also quite radiant.”

Ford had yet to break through with her co-starring role in The Big Bird Cage, which would ultimately help her get cast in the Burt Reynolds hit The Longest Yard, but she impressed the young filmmaking team with her tireless work ethic. “She was a pleasure to work with,” Huyck praises. “It was her first film, and she worked very hard. Everybody on it was great.”

When Gloria hired her brother as DP a wise move considering his recent work in micro-budget films he brought along many of his talented friends. “I was very excited to do this family project,” Stephen says, “and a lot of people we knew came aboard, like, ‘Here’s a barn, we’re putting on a show!’ I guess they met Jack Fisk through me, because of my experience with him,” he says of the soon-to-be-famous production designer, with whom he had just collaborated on Angels Hard as They Come (1971), it would be another couple of years before Fisk would connect with visionary directors Terrence Malick and Brian De Palma.

“A friend of ours, Joan Mocine, did all the murals on the walls,” Huyck recalls. “We thought it would be cool to have those and actually, it sort of led to us using that idea later in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. They had the Indian murals on the walls, and then the characters step out of them. It was fun visually; we just played around a lot.”

While Stephen already had experience, Huyck, Katz and Ford were all stepping into the darkness together. “It was my first film as an actress, rather than as a model or a key extra,” Ford points out, “and I was very open to the process. My impression was that Willard and Gloria were young and innovative, and I had a nice rapport with both of them. I also sensed that their vision was quite large. I respected them, trusted them and liked them immensely.”

“I really had a lot of respect for Gloria and Willard,” Stephen says. “They were great writers, and we were young and we could do anything. We could go 100 hours a day and not get tired.” Drawing upon their shared love of foreign cinema and pop art, Huyck emd the Katzes formed a cohesive vision. “I don’t remember storyboards,” Stephen says. “Willard and I spent a lot of time discussing the visuals, looking at the locations. I was really influenced by French cinema, Godard and Antonioni.” The creative team was also inspired by contemporary painters such as Edward Hopper and Ed Ruche. “My favorite scene in Messiah of Evil is at the gas station,” Stephen says, “because it really reminds me of a Hopper. Or if you’ve ever seen the Standard Station Ed Ruche lithograph… it’s clearly what we did.” One of Messiah’s highlights is the gorgeous scope photography afforded by the use of Technicolor film stock, which by 1971 had fallen out of favor. “We loved the idea of Techniscope, the widescreen format,” Huyck says.

The majority of the production was lensed in the Echo Park area, which was hit by the devastating Sylmar earthquake the same year. “It was sort of where I had lived when I was at USC,” Huyck recalls. “We used students and friends we had gone to film school, so it was sort of an extension of our time there.”

Redondo Beach was another key filming site, and practical locations were used for all of the unique interiors. “One of the first days of shooting,” Ford says, “I recall walking into an old house north of the 101 Freeway around Western Avenue. This would become one of our primary locations. I walked through the front door into a living room, and was astonished. The walls were covered with art I mean, this was real art. I wanted to walk up to the producer and say, ‘Hey, the paintings on these walls are not B-movie fare; these are not a set designer’s scribbling, this is where I was beginning to realize then that I was part of something with taste, something above and beyond anything typical.”

Given the accelerated shooting schedule of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz’s Messiah of Evil, there wasn’t much time for its cast to prepare for their roles. This meant that the actors had to primarily do the character work on their own. “We didn’t have much dialogue about Laura’s motivation,” recalls co-star Anitra Ford about her role. “It was mostly intuitive. For my characterization, I must say that I really enjoyed drawing from what I’d seen around me in the ’60s in Hollywood: the flower children and the Hollywood hippies.”

Ford’s icy, casually sardonic drifter is a true personification of that era’s disenfranchised countercultural movement. “Laura was obviously someone who had really been around, from San Tropez to Bombay,” the actress says. “I imagined that she was at least, now and then, a call girl and someone who lived by her wits. I do recall Willard and Gloria working with me a bit during the motel scene, when Joy Bang, Michael Greer and I were in the room together. I don’t remember the exact dialogue, but I do recall them gently coaxing me in a particular direction. They were very, very kind.”

“One of the things that was actually fortunate,” Huyck says, “was that the movie was made in 1971. There was a terrible economic downturn, so the San Fernando Valley was full of unemployed aerospace workers. A lot of the people who played ghouls were engineers who were out of a job and willing to work for, like, $25 a day or whatever we were paying.”

One of the casting coups that arose from this situation was Bennie Robinson, an albino African-American who had no previous experience as an actor. Robinson, who played the creepy trucker with a love for mice and Wagner opera, was discovered standing in hue at the unemployment office. Huyck and Katz already had an idea for an albino in the script, and were excited to cast him. “He was not an actor at all,” Huyck remembers. “He was a sweet guy, and did a great job.” Robin son’s character gives a voice to the ghouls, who, aside from the resurrected Joseph (Royal Dano), are portrayed as sentient yet silent beings. His vaguely menacing and slightly awkward hue readings add an uncomfortable human dimension to the afflicted townspeople.

“Bennie Robinson was sweet and great fun to work with,” remembers Ford, whose character shares a memorable truck ride with him. “We both loved doing that scene together.” This portion, and Robinson’s memorable visage, were the basis for the film’s poster and ad artwork when it was reissued as Dead People.

Two of Messiah’s most celebrated scenes directly involve the afflicted townspeople and their nocturnal flesh eating pursuits. These set pieces, in a Ralph’s grocery store and a classic single-screen movie theater, best exemplify the creators’ “horror within the mundane” aesthetic. “As far as the iconic supermarket scene,” Ford recalls, “I have to give Stephen Katz a great deal of the credit. As a fashion model, I not only knew tight, but felt it like a sixth sense. The lighting in that scene was beautiful, and I responded to it like a moth to a flame.”

The scene sees Laura, looking for a way out of town, following a lone figure into the seemingly deserted store. She wanders into the back, where a group of ghouls are eating raw meat from a display case. When they catch a glimpse of her, they give chase through the aisles, eventually capturing and devouring her in a frenzy. The innocuous retail setting, with its aisles of familiar products and generic muzak, anticipates George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which Messiah predates by several years. “I vividly remember Stephen being so very present, traveling with me every step of the way,” Ford continues. “I felt him guiding me, which was a beautiful feeling kind of tike flying through space with my emotions and my features and him guiding the spacecraft. I recall rehearsing my action several times, blocking it with the camera, and having marks on the floor to guide me.”

Shooting in Ralph’s, with its fluorescent tights, wasn’t much of a challenge for the innovative cinematographer. Stephen remembers using the existing lighting without filters and fixing any exposure issues in post-production. “I liked it because it was fluorescent and hot, and kind of like George Lucas’ THX-1138. This may sound crazy, but the way we moved the camera through the aisles and things came from an appreciation for crazy Sam Fuller. The way he always moved the camera in his war movies. The last scene with the tanks and everything running through Chicago’s Daley Plaza was right out of a Sam Fuller movie.”

“I always thought that scene was just a hoot,” Stephen says. “I loved it. Filming that was just a matter of shooting the screen as a proscenium I don’t believe the camera moves at all. The whole thing is very staged, you know very simplistic.” The movie Laura watches was originally supposed to have been specific material shot for the production. “We were going to do something special with that,” recalls Gloria, who cameos as the ticket seller, “but we never got to that point. They just put in whatever they could find.” The images shown on screen often clash with the audio, lending a montage feel to the film-within-the-film, as if Toni has been in the theater for an extended period of time. While assembling the film’s original cut, editor Scott Conrad found a discarded print of the musical The Band Wagon in a trashcan. Part of that audio was used as a temp track, some of which was ultimately left in the final print. “So a musical is playing instead of the Western,” Huyck explains. “That Western [Gone With the West] is in the movie because the company that finally released Messiah [International Cinefilm] owned it.”

“I had a nervous breakdown as a producer, because we were making this movie for zero money,” Gloria says. “It was an incredible amount of tension just to get the film as far as it got.” Toward the end of filming, the budget problems began to spiral out of control. “As we were entering the final stretch and we were in Topanga shooting the horse scene,” Gloria continues, “I got this call from the horse person that the check had bounced. We had about a week left, and I thought, ‘Gee, if we could just get the scene on the beach if we co^d just shoot that and somehow pay for the lights we could at least get the picture mostly finished. Then we could fool around getting inserts on short ends.”

But production abruptly ended when they couldn’t pay the crew. Huyck adds, “Well, we got part of the beach scene. There were supposed to be a lot of people on the beach, and we only got two of them. We figured we’d fill in the other things later and then there was more in the insane asylum at the end that was never shot. So the ending is sort of truncated and hard to understand. But by that point, we weren’t involved.”

The problems didn’t end for the creative team after production was shut down. “Actually, what happened was really embarrassing,” Gloria admits. “I thought I had a certain amount of cash, and I was writing the checks and then they bounced. The investors had taken the money to reroof their house. I was going to have to go to small claims court, so I totally freaked out. I felt terrible about the people who got ripped off. I just tried to look like I was this out-of-her-mind 16-year-old with no responsibility for what happened.”

A lawsuit between the movie’s Texas backers also meant that much of the film would never even be processed. Hoping to put together a rough work print to show potential new investors, Huyck and the Katzes decided to take matters into their own hands. “We sort of snuck the print out of Technicolor,” Huyck reveals. “We had a room there, which they gave us because they were so happy we were using the machines. We knew we were in trouble, we and the editors — and I guess Stephen was involved too took our cars over there, put all the film and the work print in the trunks and left before they found out they were not going to be paid anymore.”

“The labs were very supportive of us,” Stephen recalls, “and I remember somehow knowing how to get in the back door at Technicolor. We were carrying boxes out ‘Let’s get it out of here before they get it!’ The film was hidden at Willard’s father’s place, 1 think.”

The creative team was able to secure the necessary editing equipment, and called upon more friends and relatives for favors. “Willard’s father had this factory in the San Fernando Valley,” Gloria says, “so we set up and I don’t even know how we paid for the machines there.” Their friends Morgan Fisher and Billy Weber (the latter of whom went on to a major editing career of his own, including numerous collaborations with Terence Malick) both spent time on cutting duty without pay.

After Huyck and Gloria had assembled a cut, they took it to several distributors, including Roger Gorman’s newly formed New World Pictures. However, they could find little interest in securing funds to complete the project. “We had put music on it mostly Bernard Herrmann, I believe and we had some ‘scene missing’ inserts and so forth,” Huyck remembers. The cold reception to the near-completed film was difficult for the creative team to endure; peers even told them privately that it might reflect poorly on their careers to be associated with the project. “It eventually went back to the investors,” Huyck says, “and they recut it and put music on it, and never finished shooting.”

That truncated version of Messiah of Evil was eventually released by International Cinefilm in 1973. Editor Conrad was tasked with creating a cut that made sense in spite of not having a definitive ending, and he never consulted with the original team, adding to the ambiguity of the third act. “It was recut in places at the end,”

Huyck says, “and in the mental-institution scene, they added a shot because they didn’t have anything. So you see two hospital orderlies coming out which doesn’t make much sense, but they needed something to play during the voiceover.”

No other additional footage was shot by the rights holders. “One thing we didn’t have was where you see Arletty [Marianna Hill] in the mental institution, and as she’s painting, there were supposed to be these scars on the side of her face,” Huyck notes. “It would have represented the fact that while they think she’s a lunatic, it sort of proves the story she has told. When they’re standing on the rocks, in the waves, the dark stranger puts his hand on her face and burns this scar onto her skin during this sort of weird wedding ceremony. That’s missing you don’t see that at the end.”

The disturbing voiceover that bookends the film, as Arletty wanders the hospital hallway, obscured by blinding backlight, “was sort of influenced by the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Huyck says. “She’s trying to tell them, and they won’t listen.” Astute viewers have been able to figure out “the big reveal,” if not the entire third-act resolution: It turns out that the “dark stranger,” partially obscured iu the flashbacks, was Greer’s character Thom. (If you look closely, you can make out the actor’s features underneath his large hat.) Arletty loses Thom during their struggle in the ocean at the end; setting up his rise from the dark water alluded to Joseph’s story.

While the twist never occurs on screen, it doesn’t lessen the impact of the previous hour and a half. The lovely ambiguity imposed by the omission of this detail has created all sorts of interpretations of the film many of which have amused and sometimes confounded those who made it. Even Ford has her own take on the “meaning” of the release version. “An artist has witnessed true horrors and they have driven him mad,” she offers.

Ford recalls, “The first time I saw the film was at the Pau Pacific Theatre. I was very pleased with the movie, but it wasn’t until I saw it at a UCLA film festival about 10 years ago that I really appreciated it for the first time. I was amazed by its beauty and luminescence. I realized that time, with its larger perspective, had elevated this film.” The actress’ Messiah viewing site was memorialized in another iconic film: “In Annie Hall, there is a montage of LA,” she continues. “They pan along Beverly Drive lined with palm trees, and many of the local streets and scenery. Within that montage is a shot of the Pan Pacific. Guess what’s on the marquee? Yep, Messiah of Evil”

The aforementioned UCLA screening was the first time that most of the Messiah gang ever saw their work projected on the big screen. “Suddenly it showed up, out on the web, as the quintessential horror film of aU time or something,” Stephen laughs. “Then Willard told me that UCLA was showing it and we were going to speak about it. I believe that’s the first time I saw it. It wasn’t the greatest print, but it was on film. It was huge. It was fun, and I was like, ‘This isn’t so bad.’ ”

During one of the movie’s many retitled regional runs a.s Return of the Living Dead, the distributor used au equally familiar tagline in some newspaper ads, which trumpeted, “When There Is No More Room In Hell The Dead Will Walk The Earth” — a line lifted directly from the iconic advertising for Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. “My father, who has my name, got a summons that George Romero was suing him,” Huyck says. Fortunately, the lawsuit never materialized — but since then, Messiah has been inaccurately referred to as a zombie film, aud one inspired by Romero’s first two Dead entries. It’s an unfair comparison, as Messiah is both aesthetically and narrative quite different from Night and was completed well before Dawn.

Though Huyck and Gloria had never seen Romero’s first watershed feature, their cinematographer was very familiar with it. “That film scared the shit out of me,” Stephen says of Night, “there probably was some influence there, though I’m not quite sure what.” A more pure cinematic kindred spirit would be Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962); its presentation of a group of pale-faced ghouls haunting a tortured church organist shares Messiah’s poetic menace and nightmare logic. Regarding any cosmetic similarities to other films, Huyck says, “When you don’t have a lot of money, you end up doing tire same kind of makeup, basically. And our makeup guy [Budd Miller] had worked on several other ghoul movies.”

After its long, sporadic theatrical run never trademarked in any incarnation Messiah eventually fell into public-domain obscurity. “But you know how strange things happen,” Gloria says. “In the course of all that, occasionally we would Google Messiah of Evil’ and read these amazing reviews.”

Throughout the years, the couple would encounter fans of the film, some quite passionate in their admiration. “1 ran into that critic Robin Wood from Sight & Sound,” Huyck remembers, “and he said, ‘Oh my God, Willard Huyck you made Messiah of Evil It’s very strange, but I’m glad that at least it has resurfaced, ’cause it was a lot of work and a lot of anxiety in the best tradition of what you do once you leave film school.” Helping to convert more viewers was Code Red’s 2009 DVD release, which finally presented the film in its proper aspect ratio from a near-pristine print after years of substandard VHS and disc editions with the cooperation of Huyck, who was able to oversee and approve this edition himself, making it a pivotal moment in the film’s resurgence.

While Messiah’s makers wait with an amused curiosity to see where the recent interest in the film might lead, they have stayed busy creatively. Huyck and Gloria, who also penned Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Radioland Murders for producer Lucas, are still active in the entertainment community, and, not surprisingly, are devout art patrons with an extensive collection. On the film’s legacy, a perplexed Gloria says, “It’s one of those things that just kind of emerged.” The writing duo is also celebrating the current resurgence in popularity of another, much bigger feature that originally received a cool reception. Huyck laughs, “Howard the Duck is our big cult film, Messiah of Evil is our little cult film.” Stephen, who relocated to France several years ago, is still an in-demand cinematographer; his most recent project is a documentary on the social and economic demise of Detroit called Internal Combustion. “A lot of the early movies I made you know, those [exploitation] movies were a ball!” says the pleased cameraman. “And it never felt like a career. We were making cartoons.”

Ford, though no longer active in film, has been writing and creating art for years, sharing poetry, personal musings and new photographic work on her blog. She remains a great champion of Messiah and the creative process behind it. “There is an undercurrent of brilliance in this movie that goes much deeper than its flaws,” Ford reflects. “1 love the way the film has not only held up over time, also become something greater.”

Willard Huyck
Gloria Katz

Writing Credits
Willard Huyck
Gloria Katz

Stephen Katz

Michael Greer
Marianna Hill
Joy Bang
Anitra Ford

Music by
Messiah of Evil Phillan Bishop

Hold On To Love
Music and Lyrics by Eliane Tortel
Sung by Raun MacKinnon

Fangoria 338
Fangoria 339

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