The Tomb of Terror: Messiah of Evil (1973)
Every Saturday night The Tomb of Terror opens, unleashing reviews of the obscure and the classic in horror cinema.
Husband and wife writer/producer/director team Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz have had a storied career in Hollywood. Film school friends of George Lucas (Star Wars), they have worked with the famed director on many projects. They co-wrote American Graffiti with Lucas and wrote the screenplay for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom from a story by Lucas. This all led to the film that pretty much ended Huyck and Katz’s career, the much maligned Lucas production of Howard the Duck. On that notorious box office bomb, Huyck acted as director while Katz produced, and both wrote the screenplay. Many years before that tragic film befell their careers, the duo played identical roles on a low budget horror film entitled Messiah of Evil.
As the film opens, a man (Walter Hill, future director of The Warriors) runs down a suburban street late at night. He’s panicked and out of breath. As he regains composure, a fence door swings open. A blue glow covers his face and he crawls into a backyard. The blue glow is coming from an outdoor pool where a young girl sits idly buy. She quietly walks over to the man and caresses his face. Who is she? A daughter? A lover? We never get these answers because she pulls out a straight razor and slits the man’s throat. OK, I think, horror films always have an opening scare that is explained later. Not so here. These characters are never referenced again and the scene seems to take place in an entirely different location than the rest of the film. This is just the beginning of the confusion in Messiah of Evil.
Following the shock opening, we hear Arletty (Marianna Hill, The Godfather Part II) giving voice over. This opening narration is completely disconnected from the shot we see, an out of focus hallway with a person walking toward the camera. After that bit of confoundment is over, we finally get a grasp on what story this film is trying to tell. Arletty is on her way to visit the small town of Pointe Dune. Her father has recently moved there and has stopped writing to his daughter. Before the sudden disappearance of contact, his letters had become more and more bizarre. We learn all of this through a string of narration, over shots of Arletty driving. Long stretches of boring narration will become a common theme in the film.
Arletty arrives at her father’s house, a piece of art in which every wall has people painted on it and beds hang from chains connected to the ceiling. Her father is nowhere to be found. She heads into town and meets an assortment of strange characters. There’s a blind art gallery dealer, a gas station attendant who fires guns into a field for no apparent reason, and the town drunk (Elisha Cook Jr., Rosemary’s Baby), who is very concerned about a hundred-year-old prophecy involving a “blood moon.”
While on her search, Arletty finds some companionship in terms of an interesting threesome. And that’s not just cheeky wordplay—the characters actually make a point to say that they are a three person couple. This trio consists of Thom (Michael Greer, Fortune and Men’s Eyes), Laura (Anitra Ford, Invasion of the Bee Girls), and Toni (Joy Bang, Play It Again, Sam). Thom investigates legends (that’s the closest any of the main characters get to a backstory or inkling of their life outside the film) and apparently is a giant stud because there’s really no apparent reason why one, let alone two, girls would be following him from small town to small town.
Arletty and Thom begin digging deeper into the past of Pointe Dune. They find her father’s journal, and this sets off even more narration. We not only hear copious amounts of exposition via voice over from Arletty, but at this point we also start hearing journal entries narrated by her father (Royal Dano, Killer Klowns From Outer Space). The journal explains that the people of the town are changing, and that it has something to do with the prophesied return of a dark stranger who appeared a century before. We see glimpses of these changes in scenes of the zombie-like townspeople wandering aimlessly through town, blood dripping from their eyes. There’s also a towering albino who eats rats and drives a pickup truck with dead bodies in the back. How does this all add up? The answers do come eventually, but they are at the end of the film and it can feel like a chore at times to get to them.