In 1973, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz were two of the writers who helped George Lucas create 'American Graffiti,' the director's classic look at the nightlife of southern California.
That same year, Huyck and Katz made their own movie about what happens after dark in the Garden State.

It barely found an audience and is a far cry from the gentle nostalgia 'American Graffiti,' but it in its own weird way, 'Messiah of Evil' creates a spell just as mesmerizing as Lucas’ beloved retro-fest.

The movie starts strange, with Arletty Long (Mariana Hill) traveling to Point Dune, a mostly deserted arts colony, in search of her father (veteran character actor Royal Dano). Before she even arrives she has an unnerving encounter with an albino, and things just keep getting weirder. There are bonfires on the beach, offbeat hipster visitors, prophecies of something called “the Blood Moon” and townsfolk who may be vampires or zombies . . . or something else entirely.

It’s not always clear what’s happening, and it’s almost never clear why, but that’s what makes 'Messiah of Evil' so compelling. Huyck (who directed and co-wrote) and Katz (who co-wrote) give their horror tale a real art-student sensibility, and it fits surprisingly well. Dano’s studio is filled with colossal paintings of eerie figures that lend even the mundane conversation scenes an uneasy air. Quick glimpses of things best left unseen -- like a truckload of dead bodies -- put the viewer on edge.

And when the movie really cranks up the scares, the sense of dread is almost unbearable. One young woman meets her end in a violent attack in a supermarket, and in the movie’s most memorable scene, another young woman (played by the memorably named actress Joy Bang) sits in an empty movie theater that slowly but surely fills up with cannibalistic denizens of Point Dune.

Released after the glory days of the British Hammer films but before movies like 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' and 'Halloween' revived the all-American horror movie, 'Messiah of Evil' occupies a strange, surreal space when a couple of imaginative students could deliver something genuinely surprising. It’s not fast-paced, and it doesn’t even worry about making sense, but if you’re in the right frame of mind, it’ll crawl under your skin and stay there for a long, long time.

Having fallen out of copyright some years ago, 'Messiah of Evil' is easy to find on DVD -- too easy, in fact. It’s a staple feature on those bargain-basement collections that offer 25 or 50 or 100 horror movies for a ridiculously low price. But if you want to experience 'Messiah of Evil' at its best, really giving the movie a chance to work its dark magic on you, don’t be a cheapskate. Skip the value pack and, instead, pony up the dough for Code Red’s 35th-anniversary edition. Besides commentary by the filmmakers and other bonus elements, it includes the most important special feature of all: a decent-looking, widescreen print of the movie.

Despite its low budget, 'Messiah of Evil' works very hard to create a unique sense of unease and dread. If you want that spell to work on you, we suggest watching it in as pristine a form as possible.

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