Messiah of Evil: Film and the Influence of L.A. Pop Art
July 22nd, 2019
The California beach town of Point Dune. It is a quiet, moonlit night, and Laura (Antira Ford) ventures out for the evening without a car. The town is deserted. The only sounds are her footsteps and the distant crash of waves upon the shore. The howling of a coyote disrupts this peacefulness, and Laura looks around nervously before continuing onward. Out of nowhere, a red pickup truck emerges and saunters up alongside Laura. “Wanna ride?” asks the mysterious driver, the “Albino Trucker” (Bennie Robinson). The truck’s cargo bed is filled with six motionless, pale-white men – their faces turned upwards towards the moon. Laura accepts the offer and rides in the cab with the white-haired stranger as Wagner plays on the car stereo. The Trucker asks if Laura was at “The Waiting” earlier that evening on the beach. Laura says that she was not. The Trucker responds: “Everybody was out there tonight, even the little creatures.” Reaching down between his lap, the Trucker picks up a small rat by the tail and eats it. With the rodent’s blood dripping down his chin, the Trucker says to Laura: “I’ve gotta another if you’d like?” Laura declines and gets out of the truck.
Laura continues onward through Point Dune, passing by empty motels, used car lots, and household appliance stores. She sees a barefoot woman in blue wandering the streets alone, and, attempting to get her attention, Laura follows her into a Ralph’s grocery store. In the store’s meat section, she encounters several ghoulish-looking people, in the same mold as the pale men in the back of the red pickup truck, feasting on raw meat. Aware of Laura’s presence, they stop eating and chase her through the store, eventually cornering and consuming her. Point Dune is quiet, once again.
Of course, there is no town of Point Dune, California. This is reference to “Point Dume,” a Malibu beach location that has featured strongly in film and television, notably in the finale of the original Planet of the Apes (1968) and the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink (1991) and The Big Lebowski (1998). In Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Reyner Banham notes that “the beaches are what other metropolises should envy in Los Angeles, more than any other aspect of the city,” and that “the culture of the beach is in many ways a symbolic rejection of the values of the consumer society.” In Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz’s Messiah of Evil (1973), a “consumer society” literally consumes Laura against the backdrop of an idealized Southern California ecology that Banham called “surfburbia.”
Messiah of Evil is the story of Arletty (Marianna Hill) and her search for her father, an artist living in Point Dune who mysteriously disappears. She soon discovers that the town’s residents have been turned into flesh-eating ghouls, awaiting the return of their leader, a dark stranger and survivor of the Donner Party known as the “Messiah of Evil.” They gather on the beach under the moonlight (shot at the real Point Dume) in a ritual referred to as the aforementioned “Waiting,” their faces turned upwards towards the moon — devoid of any emotion. The film was shot around the Los Angeles and Orange County area over the course of two months in 1971 and released in May of 1973. Coming on the heels of films like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Messiah of Evil is a film that Kim Newman describes as “strangely surreal...shot through with the pretensions one might expect from fresh film school graduates…but rich in narrative convolutions and peculiar atmospherics.” The film is something of a hybrid between the vampire and zombie film subgenres, in a way that recalls The Omega Man (Boris Sagal, 1971). The ghouls are “runners” (echoed in the “runners” of 28 Days Later and Zack Synder’s Dawn of the Dead remake), as opposed to the lumberers of Night of the Living Dead. There also is a not-so-subtle element of counterculture vs. silent majority at play in the narrative. Filmed in the wake of the Manson Family trial, the film taps into cultural anxieties through the cult-leader figures of the Messiah of Evil and the character Thom (Michael Greer) – a vampiric, Portuguese aristocrat (he claims to have been born and raised in a castle) who is “a collector of old legends” and who attempts to seduce Arletty. While there have been scholars who have written about these genre elements in Huyk and Katz’s neglected (and, frankly, underrated) film, I would like to focus on a different aspect of the film that has been underdiscussed, one that connects the film to a broader group of films set in and around the Los Angeles area during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The film’s horror elements and social critique are underscored by the L.A. pop art-influenced production design of Joan Mocine and Jack Fisk (who would later collaborate with David Lynch on Mulholland Drive and with Paul Thomas Anderson on There Will Be Blood and The Master). The art of Andy Warhol, Ed Kienholtz, Ed Ruscha, and other regulars at L.A.’s famed Ferus Gallery can be felt in Mocine and Fisk’s visual design – a design that underscores the clash between counterculture and consumer culture at the heart of the film.
Cinema has been enhanced by art movements since its inception, with surrealism and German expressionism as some of the most salient examples. Los Angeles during the 1940s, however, is an interesting moment in history, as there was a noticeable convergence between the film industry and the distinct features of California life. As Paul Karlstrom has observed, the role of the film industry in the local economy allowed for popular culture to take on a greater significance than it would elsewhere, and, through the cross-pollination between popular art and film, Los Angeles “had come to embody (physically and psychologically) change, freedom, and mobility.” Some artists, like Lorser Feitelson and Man Ray recognized the expressiveness of “cinematic devices” through their art, whereas other artists like June Wayne, Jules Engel, and Rico Lebrun worked around the film industry. During the 1950s through the 1970s, Los Angeles, according to William Hackman, was the center of gravity in America for modern art, and the role that cinema would play in making the American counterculture visible would, in turn, raise the visibility of Los Angeles pop art.
One of the central problems with depicting Los Angeles on film is the lack of public monuments, fueled largely by the systematic destruction of public space, as Mike Davis has explored eloquently in City of Quartz: “Here, one wants to create the Paris of the Far West….Yet, in spite of the artists, writers and aspiring film stars, the sensibility of a real Montmartre, Soho, or even Greenwich Village, cannot be felt here. The automobile mitigates against such a feeling, and so do new houses.” Yet, in automobile culture and in the sprawling flatlands, artist Ed Ruscha finds something transcendent, exemplified in his photobook Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966). The title of the book could not be a more accurate: an accordion folio book, featuring two continuous photographic views of the Sunset Strip. The top photos, right-side up, display one side of the street, and the other side is featured, upside down, on the bottom of the page. The book provides a city symphony of sorts, or perhaps a city symphony movement that showcases a portion of the city that was the epicenter of the L.A. rock and roll scene the year it was released. A year later, Roger Corman would shoot sequences of his psychedelic B-movie/exploitation film The Trip (1967) at the same locations, as Peter Fonda on LSD wanders through a city symphony of his own. The successive photographic experiments of Etienne Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge spring to mind when looking at Ruscha’s successive photography process in this book, a city symphony as a succession of plates.
When asked what tourists should see in Los Angeles, Ed Ruscha responded: gas stations and “any kind of edifice that has to do with the car.” Gas stations, according to Ruscha, are fascinating because everything about them is streamlined,” and the fact that “they can put them together in three days or less” is truly remarkable. An early scene in Messiah of Evil features a gas station that recalls the paintings in Ruscha’s photobook Twentysix Gasoline Stations(1963). These paintings, according the Ken D. Allan, are “often characterized as having a deadpan quality that projects a kind of cool indifference towards the viewer,” a reconfiguring of the everyday and mundane into something liberating in its absurdity. Through evoking Ruscha in this manner, the gas station in the film taps into a Freudian sense of the uncanny – the familiar is rendered strange, contributing to an encroaching sense of dread.
Arletty arrives at the station, en route to Point Dune. As the attendant starts pumping gas, the Albino Trucker arrives in his red pickup truck. The Trucker’s whiteness, contrasted against his dark clothing, recalls a feature of pre-modern western art that David Batchelor refers to as chromophobia: a fear of corruption or contamination through color. For Batchelor, this fear of corruption or contamination is from “something that is unknown or appears unknowable,” usually through making color “out to be the property of some foreign body – usually the feminine, the oriental, the primitive, the infantile, the vulgar, the queer, or the pathological” or by relegating color to the “realm of the superficial, the supplementary, the inessential, or cosmetic.” In Messiah of Evil, Batchelor’s model for chromophobia is inverted. The “contamination and corruption” and “the realm of the superficial” emanate from the colorless: the Trucker and the zombie-vampires who await the Messiah’s return are, as Brendan Riley notes, conservative, suit-wearing symbols of consumer culture that are literally out to consume the counterculture.
The influence of L.A. pop art and the inversion of chromophobia are are further expanded upon in Arletty’s father’s home and studio space throughout the film. Descending down a long staircase into the art studio, it is as if Arletty is leaving behind the drab world above and entering a new world where pop art provides some kind of refuge. As writer Chris Randle describes it:
“[Art designer Jack] Fisk fills Arletty’s father’s house with pop-art murals that lure and mislead the eye: Grey men, in black suits, dressed for somebody’s funeral. A bed dangles from the ceiling on chains; ornate windows embellish the light. The isometric lines of fake Ed Ruscha paintings isolate characters beneath them. Messiah of Evil doesn’t scare with monsters….It shows how horror can annex a place instead, compelling you to pass through familiar and traumatic rooms.”
Here, the art design evokes the uncanny, but at the same time it also taps into the gothic notion of the primitive and the pre-modern threatening the modern and civilized. The dangling swing bed, for example, recalls the natural living aspect of modern living that was popularized in Los Angeles during the 1920s and 1930s. “Modern architecture in Los Angeles,” according to Banham, “started with the useful advantage that the difference between indoors and outdoors was never as clearly defined there,” contributing to new forms of cultural iconography that became associated with affluence and progressivism. In sharp contrast, the iconography of modern, progressive living are punctured by the pre-modern; the shadows of the metal staircase railing are projected on the wall like a Murnau-esque shadow play as Arletty reads her father’s diary — a reminder that, in horror, the gothic is the pitting of the civilized against the archaic. Later in the film, we can see this clash between old and new play out in an intertextual way in a scene with Elisha Cook Jr. as Charlie, an alcoholic drifter who warns Arletty about the evil encroaching upon Point Dune and about her father’s fate. At the time of filming, Cook was a legend of classic Hollywood (noir cinema, in particular), and yet here he is positioned as if he is a prop in an Ed Kienholz sculpture, or perhaps transplanted into Andy Warhol’s $199 Television painting.
Messiah of Evil coincided with what is generally known as the New Hollywood period (roughly 1967 - 1980), and many of the L.A.-set films of this era deliberately foreground pop art and other counterculture-influenced regional visual culture. Pop art is used in exceptional ways, however, through what Thom Anderson describes as “high tourist” filmmakers in Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003): non-L.A. born filmmakers who appreciate Los Angeles in all of its complexity. Andersen points to Roger Corman’s psychedelic exploitation film The Trip (1967) and John Boorman’s neo-noir classic Point Blank (1967) as notable examples. It’s in the work of Agnes Varda and Jacques Demy, two filmmakers who became enamored with Southern California during the late 1960s, where we can see “high tourists” explore Los Angeles through pop art in a similar way as long time L.A. resident and co-director and writer of Messiah of Evil Gloria Katz: Demy, Varda, Katz, her partner and co-director Willard Huyck, and artist Ruscha use their art to address “the dynamic between the pictorial space, the mental space, and the actual space that structures our encounters with works of art as objects.” This dynamic comes through clearly in Varda’s Lions Love (… and Lies) (1969), a film featuring Warhol actress Viva and that explores L.A.’s rivalry with the New York arts scene. Demy’s Model Shop (1969), a film set largely inside the central character George’s (Gary Lockwood) automobile, features pop art influenced costuming and props, as well as several prominent uses of Standard Oil gas stations that directly recall the work of Ruscha. There are several ways of interpreting this trend in 60s and 70s L.A. films. For me, films like Model Shop and Lions Love (… and Lies) use pop art as a form of anti-establishment, neo-boosterism — a counterculture rebuke to the conservatism of the original California boosterism that coincided with the rise of the American film industry during the early twentieth century. Messiah of Evil interacts with this neo-boosterism through its pop art-influenced design, but it does so in a way that reminds the viewer of the haunting qualities to California dreaming.
Allan, Ken D. “Ed Ruscha, Pop Art, and Spectatorship in 1960s Los Angeles.” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 92, No. 3 (September 2010), pp. 231 – 249.
Banham, Reyner. Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. Los Angeles: UC Press, 2009.
Batchelor, David. Chromophobia. London: Reaktion Books, 2000.
Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. NY: Vintage Books, 1992.
Karlstrom, Paul J. “Los Angeles in the 1940s: Post-Modernism and the Visual Arts.” Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 69, No. 4 (Winter 1987), pp. 301 - 328.
Newman, Kim. Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s. London: Bloomsbury Press, 2011.
Randal, Chris. “Los Angeles Haunts Itself.” Hazlitt. October 27, 2017.
Riley, Brendan. “That Thing’s Not Your Mother (It’s Your Id).” Generation Zombie Essays on the Living Dead in Modern Culture. Editors Stephanie Boluk and Wylie Lenz. NC: McFarland, 2011.
Banham 2009, 19-20.
 As mentioned elsewhere, Reyner Banham identifies four ecologies that comprise Los Angeles and indeed much of the greater So. Cal region: ) the foothills, 2) the flatlands (or the plains of id), 3) the beaches (or “surfburbia”), and 4) autotopia, the freeway system that entangles the L.A. landscape like concrete ribbons. Films that are set in Los Angeles and the surrounding area engage with these ecologies in varying ways.
 Newman 2011, 24.
 Karlstrom 1987, 306.
Karlstrom 1987, 316.
 For further reading see William Hackman’s Out of Sight: The Los Angeles Art Scene of the Sixties(Random House, 2015).
 Davis 1992, 50, translation of Anton Wagner’s Los Angeles...Zweimillionenstadt in Sudkalifornien/Los Angeles, City of Two Million in Southern California (1935)
 Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles. Director Julian Cooper. One Pair of Eyes Series (BBC Production). 1972.
 Allan 2010, 231.
Batchelor 2000, 22
 Riley 2011, 195.
 Banham 2009, 39
 Allan 2010, 232.