A man on the run hurtles down a street at night, looking for shelter when he notices a little girl offering him a place of safety and so ducks into someone's back yard, pauses to wash his face in the fountain and then lies down on the ground, exhausted. The girl stands over him looking benevolently into his eyes - but abruptly slashes his throat open with a straight razor, killing him. Yet what does this have to do with Arletty (Marianna Hill), now incarcerated in a mental home for her claims? Those claims being that the seaside town she went to visit her father in is now overrun with some very strange people on the hundredth anniversary of the moon turning blood red...
That bloke running away at the start was future cult movie director Walter Hill, incidentally. Messiah of Evil, originally known by the far plainer title Dead People, was the first film to be made by the husband and wife duo of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, writers of American Graffiti, if not completed by them. Well, that's not strictly true, as the production was edited into some semblance of a movie, but was somewhat hamstrung by the fact that the money ran out before they had a chance to shoot their ending, leaving unsuspecting viewers scratching their heads for decades to come at a story that makes little sense as it stands.
Yet somehow that offered the proceedings a note of enigma, as if Huyck and Katz had stumbled upon an engrossing surrealist style by accident. There are those who identified parts of Carnival of Souls or even Night of the Living Dead in this, but when you know they were more influenced by European art films, you can detect the Michelangelo Antonioni or Jean-Luc Godard in it. Sometimes a filmmaker without a feel for the horror genre can conjure up a genuinely intriguing atmosphere to their chiller, and so it was the case with Messiah of Evil, with the manner in which it unfolded less satisfying on a story level as it was in mood, as if someone's nightmare was projected from their sleeping mind onto the screen.
That plotline, such as it is, sees Arletty (oddly named after the famed French actress for no reason apparent other than the screenwriters being fans of hers) go to meet her artist father at his beachhouse, stopping off at a gas station on the way. This throws up a strange puzzle, in that although we are supposed to be getting her take on events she includes parts that she could not possibly have known about, which can be explained by the fact that not one but two voiceovers were put on this to wrap it all together, but also contributes to the overall curiosity. Therefore the garage attendant is killed by a figure half-glimpsed in shadow after Arletty has gone, and his is not the only death we see that she has no idea about, looking as if this is her dream and she is unconsciously bumping off people she meets in it.
There is a pretty decent cast putting this across, as Hill was well established as a top character lead by this time, and she meets three decadent drifters in Michael Greer (perhaps better known as a comedian), Anitra Ford (a gameshow hostess known for her Invasion of the Bee Girls villainess) and Joy Bang (the unforgettably-named cult star who brightened up a fair few films of the time in support). In addition, Elisha Cook Jr shows up as does his spiritual brother in such works, Royal Dano, who plays the absent father and ends up covered in paint as he rants. Colour is very important here, and the hues blaze off the screen whether it's the landscape or the huge paintings decorating the beach house interior. It may not hang together too well, but there are striking sequences that have stayed with many who have caught this, from the supermarket attack (with fast zombies years before 28 Days Later...) and the world's worst trip to a cinema (you thought patrons talking on their phones was bad). That sums this up: not a classic, but hard to shake once you've seen it. Electronic music by Phillan Bishop.