Sunday, October 27, 2013

Halloween Hootenanny - Late Night Double Feature/First Impressions: Let's Scare Jessica to Death (John D. Hancock, 1971) and Messiah of Evil (Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, 1973)


I'll have to make this post short and sweet as time has totally run away from me today and I've gotta be up early tomorrow... I might add some kind of postscript at some point, but as I'll no doubt be revisiting these in the none too distant future anyway, I'll probably just return to them in depth here on the blog as and when. For now though, just a few general reactions to last night's double bill, sans synopses... so if you want a plot summary, hit up IMDb or Wikipedia or something, as alas, I don't have time for such things today.... 

Postscript: 28/10 - I've updated/re-edited some small parts of this post as upon re-reading it today I realised there were one or two things I forgot to mention/needed to re-phrase slightly.

Jessica was the first film I watched, and while visually speaking it was the warmer of the two, on a more general level I found it to be also the most chilling. This is one of those subtle, psychological, slow burning tales that works its way under your skin, eventually clutching the core of your very being in its icy grip.... and the implications of the events the film presents are frankly terrifying to contemplate. I also found this to be the most moving of the two films, no doubt thanks mainly to Zohra Lampert's affecting performance.... she's one of those actresses that has such an intense, mercurial presence (with her expression often fluctuating from moment to moment, vividly displaying the internal dramas playing out underneath) that I find it impossible to take my eyes off her for a moment.

There's plenty more to praise here, but as time is short I'll just briefly mention one thing that particularly impressed me, which was the gorgeous cinematography from Robert M. Baldwin. I'm assuming this was something of a low-budget affair, but it certainly doesn't look like it as the photography is both colourful and vibrant... and the autumnal atmosphere it evokes makes this an ideal one to watch round this time of year. Now on to the next movie....

While Jessica's visual style was thoroughly naturalistic, Messiah of Evil's veers more towards expressionistic, though both strongly evoke a fevered feeling of uncertainty r.e. reality and an atmosphere reminiscent of our most vivid nightmares. And as the always insightful Jeffrey Canino of Nessun Timore pointed out to me when I asked him which order he'd watch these movies in, Messiah is more of a night movie and Jessica a day, a factor that gives each film its own particular vibe and makes the former a superlative example of the "midnight movie". However, while they may seem quite different on the surface,  there are also a lot of striking similarities between the two... in fact so much so that I'm tempted to call them sister films already, even after only seeing them both for the first time last night.

I won't go into all of the overlaps here, but I'll briefly outline a couple. Firstly, both utilise a similar flashback framing device (with accompanying voice over)  to bookend their stories, and furthermore, the plots are quite similar in their general narrative trajectories. And both feature some of the same architecture, so to speak... specifically, I'm referring to the presence (and importance) of water and also, the big creepy houses the protagonists stay in both have a lighthouse like (i.e. cylindrical) element attached. However, the approach to interior decorating taken in each is rather different, to say the least... which neatly brings me to the last thing I wanted to mention today, which is Messiah's extraordinary production design, some of which can be glimpsed in the stills above and below. Kudos to Jack Fisk (who has worked with Lynch, De Palma and Paul Thomas Anderson, among others) and Joan Mocine for their amazing work in this department... the many murals which decorate the walls of one of the film's main locations add an odd, rather unique feel to the scenes they feature in... and in some ways it reminds me of the look of Fellini's "Toby Dammit", which is obviously no bad thing.

Alas, I've run out of time for today so I'll leave it there. As I said earlier, I'll be returning to both of these in more detail at a later date, so I'll just end by saying that these films are completely essential viewing for all horror aficionados, as they're both highly effective, memorable and stunningly realised, and either would be good titles to go to if you wanted to silence any naysayers who look down upon the genre as being "low-art". 


  1. Perfect examples of early '70s horror film! Also JESSICA's director John D. Hancock was set to direct JAWS 2 in 1977; I've read his original intent was to make a moody, chilling sequel (this version of the script was turned into the novelization) but was fired because producers wanted another summer thrill ride. I'd like to think Hancock's influence can be seen in the early shot of the shark's fin gracefully and quietly slicing through the ocean waters towards the town of Amity. You can see it at 46 sec in the trailer:

    1. Hi Will, thanks for commenting! Sorry I haven't replied sooner but have been on a sabbatical from blogging recently (ok, more like I've been extremely lazy) and have only just seen your comment.

      I think I saw Jaws 2 years ago and I remember next to nothing of it. But based on Jessica and what you're saying about Hancock's intentions, I would have loved to have seen his take on it.

      And thanks for the link!