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Halloween’s Gone, but the Scares Continue
The lesser-known horrors of ‘Messiah of Evil’ and ‘Ganja and Hess.’
THE BAD NEWS IS, HALLOWEEN 2023 is now in the past. If you go throwing Halloween parties in early November, wearing costumes and whatnot, you will, and should be, arrested. The good news, on the other hand, is there is no reason to stop watching horror movies. Like the Christmas Spirit, horror movies can last the whole year round, and what I’d like to do today is recommend to you a couple of lesser-known horror pictures, so that you can begin, if you haven’t already, your journey deeper into the dark side of cinema.
The first is Messiah of Evil (1974). It was written and directed by Willard Huyk and his wife Gloria Katz. Huyk and Katz’s previous screen credit was as co-screenwriters, with George Lucas, on American Graffiti (1973). Post-Messiah of Evil, they would go on to write and/or direct little-known movies like Lucky Lady and French Postcards, well-known flops like Howard the Duck, Radioland Murders, and Best Defense, as well as one huge hit: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (they were clearly tied to George Lucas for much of their careers). Given the general tenor of these films, it’s surprising that they made a horror film at all, especially one that they, or at least Gloria Katz, thought was pretty bad. But they knew that such films usually made money.
Despite how they felt about horror, Messiah of Evil was not made in a vacuum. Watching it now, many years after my first experience with it, I can detect some Argento influence on it, particularly The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (it also reminds me of Suspiria at times, but that film was released three years later). The main character, Arletty (Marianna Hill) travels to a town called Point Dume, in California. She’s trying to find her father (Royal Dano), a local artist who has gone missing, and whose correspondence with his daughter has become more and more unhinged. Anyway, the walls of his house, where Arletty stays during her search, are filled with vaguely sinister murals, with rows of men in suits, painted in black and white. This put me in mind of the earlier Argento film, and its art gallery murder set-piece.
But those suit-wearing men also appear on the streets of Point Dume, and their blank-faced wandering immediately brings to mind Herk Harvey’s remarkable one-off Carnival of Souls. Those men (and women, but they don’t wear suits) are quietly up to no good; we learn that tourists generally don’t come through this town. However, in addition to Arletty, on this day there are a trio of, I guess, swinging ’70s types: Thom (Michael Greer), Toni (Joy Bang), and Laura (Anitra Ford). They, too, are looking for Joseph Lang, Arletty’s father. Along the way, they’ve also met a man named Charlie (Elisha Cook, Jr.), who, when we first encounter him, is telling Thom and the girls a bizarre and violent story, one that seems to make no sense, but which will turn out to be quite prophetic.
As far as the plot goes, that’s more or less it, unless I choose to spoil certain things. What matters are the images, the set-pieces, the mood. This town appears to be populated by flesh-eating ghouls (the whole situation is sort of like zombies mixed with demonic possession—there actually is a Messiah of Evil in this, it’s not just a title), and our living heroes find themselves, at night, for various reasons caught out in the streets of Point Dume, being slowly pursued. It’s these set pieces that define the film—those, and dialogue spoken casually but somehow filled with portent. One victim finds herself, somewhat inexplicably, following a Point Dume citizen into a grocery store (it’s California, so it’s a Ralph’s) where she discovers these men and women in evening wear gathered in the store’s meat section, grossly devouring raw meat. Not, I don’t think, coincidentally, this scene resembles the furious cannibalism in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. (Messiah of Evil was released under several titles, one of which was Return of the Living Dead, a movie that would actually be made in 1985.) However, in this case, the fury occurs not in shadow, but under glaring, garish grocery store lights. It’s one of the most common places in the world, but nothing feels less natural than a brightly lit grocery store late at night.
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Even better than the grocery store scene is the movie theater sequence. One of our heroes decides to kill time by seeing a late movie. As she watches, the seats that were empty behind her before the film began start to fill up. You can guess by whom. It’s a slow-burn scene, and it’s the slow-burn that’s so frightening.
The common ground between these sequences—as well as later ones, such as a set-piece that begins with ghouls crashing through a decorative skylight—apart from being part of the same movie, is that they’re like nightmares. Real nightmares, I mean. You can imagine someone, or you, beginning a conversation with “I had the scariest dream last night. I was in a grocery store . . .” It really is marvelously dreamlike and strange. At one point, a character is trying to get home, and she’s walking through what appears to be a neighborhood under construction. All the houses around her are just frames. On the other hand, given what we know and have seen presently, it feels as though these were finished houses that are being slowly dismantled. In the commentary track for the old Code Red DVD, Willard Huyck says of this scene that he “just liked” the look of these houses under construction. This is as good a reason as any to film something, and it leaves the viewer uncomfortably puzzled.
EVEN MORE ASTONISHING than Messiah of Evil, and more disturbing and powerful, is Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess (1973). This vampire story is one of only three films directed by actor/screenwriter Gunn. His last, Personal Problems (1980), is—and I do not mean this as the backhanded compliment it might appear to be—possibly the most cheaply made great film I’ve ever seen. His first film, Stop (1970), is as far as I can tell completely unavailable and rarely screened. Reading about it, it sounds to me like a kind of stylized porn film.
Sadly, Gunn died in 1989. He was only 54, but he left behind at least two films that are powerful artistic and personal statements. Today we’re only concerned with Ganja & Hess (which Spike Lee remade as Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014)). It’s a film about Hess Green (Duane Jones), a well-to-do anthropologist, who, near the beginning of the film welcomes into his home an old friend and assistant named George Meda (Gunn). Meda seems somewhat uneasy, though quite talkative. In the course of their evening together, Meda will get drunk, Hess will find him sitting in a tree in the backyard, contemplating, or at least talking about, suicide, and will then suddenly attack Hess, stabbing him three times with a tribal knife. He then writes a brief philosophical manifesto about love, and shoots himself in the heart. Gunn’s performance in his few scenes is one of passionate realism. His character is extreme, and has a lot to communicate to Hess (and the viewer), and Gunn somehow makes Meda feel like a real man, tortured and violent, but flesh and blood, too.
Hess, meanwhile, is not only alive, but bears no wounds. He is now an immortal vampire (what Meda did was less an attack than it was a ritual). Finding Meda’s body, he licks the dead man’s blood off the floor. When next we see him in his daily life, he’s stealing bags of blood from a doctor’s office, so that he doesn’t need to commit murder. This moral conflict soon ceases to be a conflict, and he begins murdering prostitutes. He also brings into his home Ganja (Marlene Clark). She’s Meda’s wife and is trying to find her husband. She and Hess very quickly begin an affair. Ganja treats Hess’s servant Archie (Leonard Jackson) quite rudely, and the speed with which she seduces Hess could be seen by some as objectionable behavior. Hess, a killer, seems less a villain—an addict, a victim, as he thinks of himself—than she does. And then one day, in Hess’s wine cellar (which is filled with jars of blood), she finds the frozen body of George Meda, her husband. Clark plays this array of emotions, and Ganja’s blunt awfulness, beautifully. Like Gunn as Meda, she plays it all straight, all real. Ganja is someone you might easily meet, and then want to get away from.
Things get weird from there, and it’s here where Ganja & Hess achieves greatness. Ganja and Hess are soon married, and Hess brings her into his own state of being—the immortal killer, victim, and addict. In one scene, Hess says he has to go out, and while Ganja is being awful to Archie as they both try to make dinner, Gunn cuts to Hess in a woman’s bedroom (perhaps a prostitute, perhaps not, and not relevant anyway); she’s lying in bed, dead and bloodied, while her baby cries. Hess, unmoved, watches TV in a chair next to the bed. So gone is the idea that Hess is merely a victim. He’s vicious and cold-blooded, though you could say that at the same time he’s living life at its most hot-blooded.
Duane Jones is terrific here. Though he’s playing a character full of contradictions and extreme behavior, his performance is one of calmness, as one who is, for a while, undisturbed by his situation (compare this to his wild, constantly-moving Ben in Night of the Living Dead). It’s this cool demeanor that makes him difficult to pin down.
And then we get to the film’s best scene. Hess goes to church. At the time, the church choir is going through a rousing gospel number, led by Reverend Luther Williams (Sam Laymon, also the film’s composer), and while they sing, Hess approaches the front of the church. The reverend, who knows Hess, begins speaking to him, about accepting Jesus and cleaning his soul with His blood. This scene, so full of the conflicts of religious faith, the hope and potential for redemption, and the potential for joy, is so emotionally charged, after nearly two hours of coldness, that watching it again I became choked up. How many horror films even try to get that kind of reaction from their audience? Though there is a bit more to come in the film (and those scenes are good, effective scenes), to me the church sequence is a masterpiece among all the horror movie endings ever filmed.
So there you go. Both of these films can be streamed through major platforms, and I eagerly suggest that you do so. You’ll see what horror films can, and should, be.