James’s review published on Letterboxd:
Willard Huyck says in an interview on the disc that he wasn't really a fan of modern horror films at the time. He and Gloria Katz were fresh out of film school and still all hopped up on Goddard and Antonioni so the horror movie they ended up being asked to make had shades of foreign art films shining through.
From the first second we are introduced to the movie it is perfectly clear that it exists on a different plane of existence. It's not going to be entirely "normal". It won't entirely "make sense". We're being narrated through someone's dream. Or is it a nightmare? According to the movie nightmares are nothing more than a distortion of our dreams and this movie is most definitely distorted and dreamlike/nightmarish.
Claire mentioned this to me in the comments on her Phantasm review as being the only movie she could think of that comes close to matching Phantasm's atmosphere and it got me really excited to watch it. She was totally right. The way we wander in and out of scenes of Mike's day to day life in Phantasm all the while feeling like we're trapped in his dreams felt similar to how we are peering in on Arletty's life in Messiah of Evil but maybe we're actually seeing the narrated nightmare of a mentally ill woman.
The atmosphere of Messiah of Evil immediately made me feel like anything could happen which makes the movie far more unsettling than if it were locked in to the rules of reality as we know it. Because of that, every shadow left me wondering if something would appear in it. Every corner felt like someone or something was waiting just around it. Every time a character turned their head I expected something might be there.
Arletty's father's house added to that more than anything else in the movie. That house was the most beautiful and confusing setting and I can't imagine a more perfect place for this movie. Her father, being an artist, has art EVERYWHERE. The walls are painted with murals and there are paintings hanging everywhere and the DP used every single thing in the frame to it's fullest potential like that beautiful shot of Arletty walking into her father's studio. The camera is tilted to the right but the paintings are all hung at different angles so it's slightly disorienting and then it pulls away and it was actually a mirror shot the whole time. Or that scene where Toni is on the bed alone and the bed is moving. Or is the room moving? She doesn't seem to notice but something is up and she's looking around to see.
There are so many of those shots that were just breathtaking to me as I watched the movie. I could seriously watch this movie on mute and still enjoy it because it's that beautiful.
Before I move on though, there's one more thing about the house that really grabbed me. I don't know if it was done on purpose or maybe it was just me but I never really settled in to the geography of that gigantic house. I never understood where anything was in relation to other places we've seen. When you understand the geography of a place you become comfortable in it. I never once got comfortable in that house because I had no idea where they were going at any moment and what was on the other side of the door or how far they were from an escape route...should that be necessary. That kept me on my toes just as much as anything else.
I don't have a transition to start talking about Michael Greer but he's so fabulous he doesn't need one. I've now seen Michael Greer in The Gay Deceivers, The Curious Female, and Summer School Teachers. I always love him, especially his character in The Gay Deceivers, but this movie is my favorite (we'll see if Fortune and Men's Eyes changes my mind on that one). His performance as Thom is great. Thom is a snappy dresser with wonderful hair who's...interested in the occult? Or in folk stories or something? I don't know what he does or who he is but he shows up and Arletty let's he and his two female companions, Toni and Laura, stay with her at her father's house. He seems like he wants to help and I took him at his word as immediately as Arletty did because he's just so damn charismatic.
The ending of this movie is a fascinating one. I'm obviously not going to say anything about it but I will say that it is...open ended. Apparently that was not Huyck and Katz's original intention. They ran out of money and couldn't film anymore. After showing the movie to studio after studio the investors took the movie back and apparently filmed a quick ending and called it a day. Huyck and Katz intended on wrapping it up nicely and actually explaining everything but I'm kind of glad they ran out of money.
I will never forget this movie. I already want to watch it again. I want to show it to everyone I know.