“No one will hear you scream!”

Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz get a bad rap among movie fans, because their names are so closely associated with the 1986 megastinker Howard the Duck. After working with them on hits like American Graffiti and the Indiana Jones films, producer George Lucas tapped the pair to bring the cult following fowl to the big screen, and bad movie history was made. Years earlier, however, during a lull in American Graffiti‘s preproduction, Huyck and Katz got an offer to write and direct a horror movie. The result is a journey into trippiness called Messiah of Evil: The Second Coming, and it’s a far cry from that duck movie.

A woman (Marianna Hill, High Plains Drifter) travels to her father’s home in a small seaside community to investigate his disappearance. She meets a curious wanderer (Michael Greer, Fortune and Men’s Eyes) and his two, uh, female “traveling companions” (Anitra Ford, The Price is Right, and Joy Bang, Night of the Cobra Woman). All around them, sinister forces are at work, including the violent antics of a strange man (albino actor Bennie Robertson). Before it’s all over, the characters will face either murder…or madness.

On the disc’s bonus features, Huyck and Katz allege that they’re not into horror movies, and never intended to make one. Fresh out of film school, they were more into the artsy stuff coming out of Europe at the time. But, when the opportunity came up and the job was offered, they went for it. The resulting film wants to be an experimental art film influenced by filmmakers from around the globe, but with occasional scenes of ghoulishness.

This is a tough movie to describe, other than just “it’s out there.” Our heroine wanders around a gigantic house covered with odd murals, which include stern faces that always seem to stare at her coldly. There’s a lot of talk about evil, but not much that will help you know what, exactly, is happening. The film’s slow pace means a lot of dramatic pauses and a lot of the characters walking while staring wistfully into the distance. The big set pieces, which give the film its notoriety, are good ones. One features a woman being chased through a supermarket, and another has someone menaced while in a movie theater. These scenes show that Huyck has a real eye for generating suspense slowly, letting it build and build before it explodes in carnage and cannibalism. Once these scenes are over, though, it’s back to the main characters wallowing in their malaise.

The early ’70s vibe is unmistakable, and not just in the clothes and hair. The threesome she encounters, who later move in with her without permission, are a definite throwback to the whole “swingin’ ’60s” thing. Their free love shtick probably doesn’t come across as shocking or as scandalous today as it did at the time. I think the idea is that although they’re physically intimate, they’re emotionally distant. In fact, everyone in the movie is emotionally distant. It’s only when the terror reaches its peak and the characters scream in fear do they show any real emotion.

Just what is happening in this movie? What is the nature of the murderous evil happening in the town? Who is the titular “Messiah”? The movie drowns in its own ambiguity. It’s a heightened reality, where people don’t act like you’d expect, but instead roam around dazedly, as if in a dream. The whole movie has a dreamlike state, including a framing sequence that suggests that maybe it’s all in the main character’s head. Don’t expect answers, and don’t expect an ending that wraps it all up nicely, either.

As mentioned above, the disc’s bonus features shed a lot of light on the movie. Learning how it was made allows viewers to see the movie in a new light. They intended to combine horror thrills with high-minded art flicks, sure, but they also had a lot of scenes written but not filmed, and investors took the movie away from them after money ran out and completed the editing without them. That, plus the zero-budget nature of the production, makes it a miracle that this thing was made at all, let alone released and revisited on DVD.

Speaking of those bonus features, they include an informative commentary with Huyck and Katz, and a comprehensive behind-the-scenes documentary that covers the unconventional nature of the film and how it was made. There are a handful of odd short films included as well.

The image quality is pretty rough. There are scratches, flecks and Tyler Durden’s cigarette burns all over the picture. For a movie with lush visuals and colors, it’s too bad it hasn’t been better restored. The sound is also hazy and flat at times, and not as immersive as it could be.

This is a good example of how a quality DVD presentation makes all the difference. The movie, by itself, is weird and different, but not so outlandish that it’s a must see. The bonus features, however, add to the overall package so considerably, that they make the movie more interesting than it is.

The Verdict

Tough call. If you like early ’70s weirdness, give this one a shot. For everyone else, tread lightly.

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