Madwomen Across The Water: Two Horror Movies From The Early 70s

I’m a lifelong Texan. This is due to a lot of factors, not the least of which is my tendency toward inertia. Financial, business, all my friends are here, all my family is here… it ain’t the climate that keeps me around. I hate being hot. I hate being hot in a steambath, which is a fair description of summers around here. I would have split for parts with a more temperate-to-frigid tradition, except for… you know. Then again, I’d have to admit I’d be spending my time bitching about shoveling the sidewalk.

So we had an Arctic Event here last Friday , by which I mean No One Cares. At All. There were icicles on my mailbox. There was ice on my car, and more importantly, there was some ice on roadways. Nothing compared to what our Northern friends were experiencing, but when you live in a swamp, you do not build an igloo; we simply do not have the infrastructure for such weather. It was uncommon for these parts, but I still sort of feel there was a general overreaction. School districts and colleges shut down, which was my work day shot right there (in fact, the next day, when all this stuff had melted and it was sweater weather at best, I went to the campus and it was still locked down). My regular Friday night show was cancelled too, and when I stopped counting the money this enforced day off was costing me, I decided to have a little mini-film-festival, so I could pretend I was up in Chicago, at B-Fest, without all the shouting and slowly growing body funk.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

messiah_evil_1973_image-25Before the Frost Giants came to visit, I made use of a night off to watch Messiah of Evil, an oddity from 1973 . In it, a young lady named Arletty (Marianna Hill) goes to an insular seaside California town to find her missing artist father (who will turn out, eventually, to be Royal Dano). The townspeople are spectacularly unhelpful, if not downright hostile. She finds her father’s journal, which chronicles his apparent descent into madness – apparent except for the fact that Arletty’s experience begins to mirror his. She is joined by peripatetic curiosity seeker Thom (Michael Greer, better known as a comedian) and his two female (and somewhat mysterious) traveling companions (Anitra Ford and Joy Bang).

Messiah of Evil 2There is some mythology hanging around in the background about a Dark Preacher who passed through the community 100 years before, and walked into the ocean with a promise to return in, yes, a hundred years. Packs of townspeople spend the night on the beach, keeping warm with bonfires, doing nothing but staring out to the ocean, waiting. And when the moon turns red, the whole town turns into Night of the Living Dead. Well, we’re told that it’s when the moon turns red, but we see anti-social flesh-eating behavior from the townsfolk on regular nights, too.

Eventually our Scooby Gang is whittled down to just Thom and Arletty – and Arletty has already confronted her supposedly dead father, and is pretty far down the same path he was on – bleeding from the eyes (a sure sign of trouble in the town), inability to feel pain, general insanity. They try to escape hordes of violent townsfolk apparently come to eat them, but then…

…the movie runs out of money.

muralIn the extras of Code Red DVD‘s superb presentation of Messiah of Evil, co-writers and co-directors Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck talk about schlepping the mostly completed movie around LA, trying to get the money to finish it, and meeting with general disdain. Finally the legal squabbles between investors were settled, and they surrendered the work print, which was hurriedly completed, probably with existing footage, and released. The story gets, shall we say, rather rushed there at the end. A common enough story in Hollywoodland.

And that, oddly enough, works in favor of the movie. There’s already a Lovecraftian air to the proceedings, and what Huyck and Katz didn’t get to shoot – the rest of the backstory, explaining the Dark Preacher and what nefarious outcome he hoped to accomplish with all this flesh-eating and Blood Moon stuff – that goes unexplained. And inexplicable circumstances is the tentpole of Lovecraft-style horror.

messiah marketHere in the hyper-cynical ‘teens of a new century, it’s easier to appreciate the general tone of Messiah of Evil. My first reaction was that it was Lovecraft by way of Lynch through Argento’s sensibilities. Arletty’s encounters with the townspeople, and Thom and his mini-harem, the father’s beach house with its disorienting murals, all feel distinctly Lynchian; witness Arletty’s first encounter with Thom & Co., when a motel door opens to reveal none other than a disheveled Elisha Cook, Jr. relating a horror story of local events, apparently directly to her (it’s to Thom and his tape recorder).

hallwayThe way in which the plot unfolds, the camerawork, the reliance on narration, the dreamlike interactions between people, the lighting… it all feels positively European, and given the supernatural events, my mind drifts to Argento’s Suspiria, except without such a saturated color pallet. Hearing Huyck and Katz talk about their admiration for French film and their attempts to emulate it in the disc’s extras made me feel better – at least I got the continent right.

The cast they assembled is also surprisingly solid for the limited budget, and has plenty of genre clout. Royal Dano and Elisha Cook, Jr. require no introduction, and were probably there for a day each, at most. Marianna Hill has a varied resume, reaching from The Traveling Executioner, Blood Beach  and Schizoid all the way to Godfather Part II. Anitra Ford’s career is pretty much centered in the 70s, where she was mainly known as a model on The Price is Right, but pervert that I am, I mainly know her from The Big Bird Cage. Joy Bang – who always looked 14, no matter how old she really was (and she’s about 26 or 27 here) is probably best known for Night of the Cobra Woman, and she called it quits on her acting career soon after this movie.

Messiah theater(Another odd note is… oh, ahem, SPOILER ALERT …when Joy’s character buys it, she’s in a movie theater that slowly fills up with zombified townspeople, a chillingly effective scene. Though the movie she’s watching is supposed to be Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, it’s actually Gone With the West, also known as Little Moon and Jud McGraw, which stars Sammy Davis Jr., James Caan and Stefanie Powers. That couldn’t have been cheap to license. It also has a release year of 1975, so I have no earthly idea of what the hell is going on here, appropriately enough.)

(Future me jumps in to mention that is probably a trailer for Gone With the West, as trailers do not have such complex licensing  problems. But man, Messiah would have you believe it’s an amazingly long trailer!)

Messiah of Evil was a genuine surprise to me. Incomplete, but fairly unique in its approach and subject matter. The sequences involving Ford and Bang’s fatal encounters with the townspeople are very good, especially for a low-budget movie from a first-time director. You start wondering what Willard Huyck did afterwards. Unfortunately, the answer to that is Howard the Duck.

(That was cheap and mean and the easy way out. Huyck and Katz also wrote American Graffiti and wrote and directed French Postcards, which I thought was a pretty good movie.)

lets_scare_jessica_to_death_poster_01So then, what am I to think when the first of our Arctic Events hits (I’m typing this during the second one) and I start my little mini-fest with Let’s Scare Jessica to Death?

This movie wasn’t what I expected; that title gives you the impression a plot is afoot, and it is not (oh, yeah, spoiler alert again). Jessica (Zohra Lampert) has only recently been released from a mental institution. Her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman), a concert cellist, has sunk all his money into an old house with an attached apple orchard, intending to become a gentleman farmer and using this idyllic life to help his wife recuperate. Their friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor) comes along for the ride. They find Emily (Mariclare Costello) a red-headed hippie chick squatting in the house, and seeing how attracted Woody is to her, they wind up asking her to stay.

If you’re thinking that the townspeople are going to be stand-offish if not downright hostile, you’re right. They all seem to be wearing bandages or nursing woundsof some sort. Duncan and Jessica find a fellow transplant, an antique dealer originally from New York, (Alan Manson), who’s willing to tell them about their new home and its unfortunate history, how one of the girls drowned in the lake and now haunts the woods as “a vampire or something”. There’s some spooky girl haunting the woods alright, and Jessica keeps seeing something in the lake, beckoning to her under the surface. Then she notices that in an old photo of the previous occupants found in the attic (that was sold to the antique dealer but somehow crops back up) one of the daughters looks a lot like Emily…

lets-scare-jessica-to-death-jessicaOne of the best things about Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is that the movie keeps the viewer just as off-kilter as the title character, often unsure of what is actually happening or even what just happened. The actual reality of events is always in question, and the fact that almost all of the events happen during broad daylight, a direct violation of everything that is held dear and traditional in a horror movie, just makes everything that much more disorienting. This is also another movie where the sound design is an uncredited cast member, adding to the viewer’s growing unease.

Lampert is phenomenal as Jessica, walking a razor’s edge of panic and brittle bravery in the face of her recent “sickness” and resultant unreliability. Mariclare Costello, as the vampire-or-something Emily, also walks a tightrope of intentions; we’re never quite sure what she’s all about until the third act. Both women went on to lengthy acting careers deservedly so. The men, unfortunately, are just there to be manipulated, which is another reason this movie stands out in the horror field: the women do all the heavy lifting.  The men are there mainly to be culled.

(I should also indulge in another of my annoying asides to mention that the main actors deserve extra props just for getting into that lake over and over again, especially with all the nice pans over that gorgeous Connecticut fall foliage, all bright red and yellow… it’s late Fall, and that water must be freezing.)

lets-scare-jessica-to-death-watery-ghostWriter/Director John D. Hancock has an enormous set of brass gonads for even attempting to make a horror movie that unspools in the daylight, and he earns them by largely succeeding. When most people discuss him, they point to his later movie Prancer, but for my money his best movie is Weeds (which he also wrote), starring Nick Nolte.

The juxtaposition of these two movies so close together in my experience was so jarring because in many ways they are so similar: both open and close in a circular fashion, with the main character in isolation, narrating. This snippet of prose is repeated at the end, and of course, the second instance has a much heavier meaning due to what has transpired in the previous 90 minutes. Both women are insane. Both have to deal with bizarre, cultish townspeople. And both are bedeviled by things lurking in a nearby body of water.

Lets_scare_Jessica_to_death_Trailer_1971__154728 (1)Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, when it was re-released by Warner Archive, was touted as a Lovecraftian tale, which I don’t see at all: it is Lovecraftian only in that the events are never fully explained, outside of Emily being “a vampire or something”. Messiah is the more genuinely Lovecraftian of the two, with its unknown and unknowable mythology lurking around the periphery in the land of unshot footage. Jessica is more a ghost story with teeth (perhaps literally), if not a sheer examination of the horror of a decaying mind, like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”. Messiah is like Shadow Over Innsmouth re-imagined after a viewing of Night of the Living Dead.

Jessica precedes Messiah by a good two years, minus whatever time it took for Messiah’s finances to get ironed out and the movie released in its unfortunately incomplete form. Did one inspire the other? I can’t say; the common elements are such sturdy pieces of storytelling boilerplate that I can’t really judge. Sometimes the disparate pieces of a tale, floating around in the collective ether, fly together on their own, and two or more similar stories are crafted. Witness Dredd and The Raid: Redemption for a more recent example.

messiah_of_evilBut there is one thing for sure: they are both good, if odd, horror stories, well worth watching. Though I should also mention that both are going to be pretty much dismissed by the modern horror fan, with their deliberate pacing and lack of gouts of blood – Jessica moreso than Messiah.

That’s something else they have in common.

1 Comment

  1. […] Doug’s review again, it is like the circular narrations I wrote about last week, where the first time you hear the narration, you have nothing to hang on the words, but when […]

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