A man runs down a darkened street, glancing over his shoulder. He collapses, gasping for breath. A young girl appears at a gate. She leads him to a backyard pool. Blue-black darkness shrouds everything save the girl, who sits in a yellow spotlight, wearing a passive look of curiosity.
The man splashes some water on his face, then collapses again. The girl walks over and kneels next to him, proffering her hand. He grasps it, and she strokes his brow. Just as the tension drains from the man’s face, the girl raises a razor blade and slashes his throat.
Cut to a woman in a long hallway bathed in green light. As she approaches, her voiceover narration informs us that she’s survived some great horror only to find herself committed. But we must listen, “They’re waiting for you,” she says. “And they’ll take you one by one, and no one will hear you scream.”
Cut to a flashback that comprises most of the film where we see our lead Arletty, played by Marianna Hill, arriving in the small California coastal town of Point Dune to find her father.
This opening encompasses everything that’s good and bad about the film. The cold open is dynamite. The use of color evokes the best of Mario Bava or Hammer Films, and the events hook us with an intriguing mystery.
But then the film stumbles, adding in an exposition-laden framing sequence that robs the film of tension by revealing Arletty’s fate. This feels like a case of the filmmakers’ reluctance to “kill their darlings” as the sequence features some great lines. To wit:
They say that nightmares are dreams perfected. I’ve told them here it wasn’t a nightmare, but they don’t believe me. They nod and make little notes in my file. And they watch me now, waiting for me to scar my breasts, to eat insects, maybe, or to lift my dress like some crazy, old woman and urinate on the floor.
That’s good writing, but unnecessary. If they had to keep it, better to save it for the ending.
This pacing trouble permeates the film. Upon arriving in Point Dune, Arletty encounters resistance from the locals, hears legends of a “Blood Moon”, witnesses strange gatherings on the beach, and discovers her father’s disquieting journal. All good stuff, but the film recycles these act-one plot points throughout its running time.
In between, it offers some terrific scenes.
An early one sees Arletty stop for gas. She spies the attendant shooting at something in the woods. He seems distracted and skittish as he pumps her gas. Then a pickup pulls up, and a tall ominous man emerges. He stands statue-like and stares straight ahead as he instructs the attendant, who rushes to fill up the truck. While pumping the gas, the attendant peers into the pickup’s bed where, under a tarp, he spies several mutilated corpses, including the man from the cold open. He doesn’t flinch but covers them back up and gets about his business. Arletty appears at his side, proffering her credit card. “Get out of here,” the attendant hisses under his breath.
In another scene, a character ventures into a deserted grocery store. She catches sight of a patron and follows them to the back, where she sees dozens of townsfolk gnawing on raw meat. Lurid red blood pours down their pale chins. The dead-eyed group turns to her in unison. She resists the urge to scream and turns and walks away. When the townspeople begin to follow, she breaks into a run. The run begets a full-on chase as the townspeople pursue her through the store, grunting and growling with inhuman hunger. Through it all, the store’s jazz music dominates, its happy riffs a stark contrast to the life-and-death struggle on screen.
In yet another scene, a character goes to the town theater to catch a movie. The marquee above advertises “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”. She enters an almost empty theater and chooses a middle seat. The lights dim, and the film starts. It’s Gone with the West. As the film cuts between scenes from the playing film and shots of the theater, the seats behind the character fill with dead-eyed patrons. Gone with the West’s honky-tonk piano soundtrack obscures the sounds of their entry and provides another dark comedic contrast to the proceedings. Like in the cold open, the other patrons are shrouded in an icy blue-black light, while our focal character sits center under a subtle yellow spotlight. Soon, she realizes she’s not alone, glancing left and right to find herself surrounded. She panics and flees, finds the doors locked, and races back to the stage.
At this point, I recognized the film from an Alamo Drafthouse promotional reel to discourage talking. “No talking, no texting, or we feed you to the ghouls,” it warned. But I digress.
Despite these memorable scenes, the space between them amounts to recycled dead air. We learn that the residents of the town are undergoing some kind of transformation in sync with the hundred-year recurrence of the blood moon. This transformation involves losing all physical sensation and becoming devoid of blood, accompanied by a craving for raw meat, particularly human flesh.
It’s a nice tweak to the zombie formula, rendering them more ghouls than zombies, but we figure this out by the halfway mark, putting us ahead of the characters. With no further mysteries left, the film drags between set-pieces.
Worst of all, the ending underwhelms. The film over-explains itself with a needless backstory about a “Dark Rider” who survived the Donner Party through faith in a dark god. He disappeared into the ocean, promising to return a hundred years later to “a world tired and disillusioned.” This flashback-with-a-flashback raises more questions than it answers, plot-hole kinds of questions like, “Why did the stranger walk into the ocean?”
But okay, so the townspeople are drawn to the beach, lighting fires as beacons for the Dark Rider’s return (a detail we could have inferred, but more voice-over narration spoon-feeds). Maybe his return will contain some kind of twist? Nope, we see him walking up the beach, still wearing his 19th-century garb (and dry despite his supposed ocean origin), then more voice-over from Arletty explaining that he let her go.
Cut back to the asylum where Arletty paraphrases her opening monologue—again in voice-over—and the film’s done.
Disappointing. I applaud the film’s intent to meld George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead with Italian gothic horror aesthetics, but the film would have done well to emulate Romero’s masterful structure that compounds the tension and emotional stakes, pushing past nightmare imagery into a fever-dream frenzy.
Instead, Messiah of Evil meanders. It’s frustrating when a film masters advanced elements like tone and atmosphere but stumbles over basics like pacing and story. Eliminating the opening monologue and tightening the interstitial scenes would help, and a better ending could have thrust it into greatness. The production design, performances, dialogue, and atmosphere shine, but they’re wasted on a clumsy story that runs out of steam long before its 90-minute running time concludes.