Reviews | Written by Nick Spacek 21/02/2018

MESSIAH OF EVIL (1973)

It’s entirely possible that more people have seen 1973’s Messiah of Evil via the 2003 documentary visual essay Los Angeles Plays Itself than have ever seen the film itself. Despite being co-written, co-produced, and co-directed by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who would go on to write the screenplays for massive blockbusters for American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the film was a very under-the-radar film, on a level with the likes of 1962’s Herk Harvey-directed Carnival of Souls.

As the notes from Ondes Positives make clear, Messiah of Evil has ‘a genuinely surreal and dreamlike tension,’ which is set up visually by Huyck and Katz, but the electronic score by Phillan Bishop is ‘an avant-garde suite of modulated shrieks, drones and pulses which whirl a discordant vortex around the bizarre on-screen images.’

It’s a genuinely disconcerting listen. While more musical than earlier all-electronic scores such as Bebe and Louis Barron’s work on Forbidden Planet - which was more blips and stabs and tones than actual melodies - it’s still a completely disconcerting, eerie listen. Messiah of Evil is unsettling and Bishop's score is equally as important as the visuals in keeping the viewer's perspective off-kilter.

Given that the original master tapes were unavailable, Ondes Positives made every effort to ‘create the best possible release of this music using existing materials.’ The label took the music from a 35mm release print, then fully restored the soundtrack to ‘eliminate noise and unwanted artefacts.’ It certainly worked - the music here sounds as if it were taken from some long-lost tapes, not sourced from the music and effects track of a nearly fifty-year-old print.

However, that does mean that the available cues can’t be presented in their entirety, due to the fact that there is dialogue and sound effects which interfere at times. To that end, the available music cues were edited and sequenced to present ‘as much of the score as possible.’ Given that this music - nor any of Bishop’s music - has never before been released in any format, this is quite an accomplishment.

In addition to Bishop’s score, no edition of Messiah of Evil’s soundtrack would be complete without the opening title song written by Eliane Tortel, Hold on to Love. Sung by Raun Mackinnon, the torch song which plays over the opening scene is an absolute stunner, and for fans of lounge-style jazz, it’s a must-listen. It’ll also appeal to genre fans whose appetite was whetted by the Nicki Mathis-sung Forgetting You, when Ship to Shore released the soundtrack for Manos: The Hands of Fate a few years back. For whatever reason, dreamlike oddities pair so well with cocktail music.

The ‘Dark Stranger’ deluxe numbered art edition continues the clever packaging concepts on previous Ondes Positives releases. In this case, it’s a heavyweight 7-inch record on 70-gram virgin black vinyl, which is then placed inside a hand-finished and assembled 12-inch fold-out sleeve design, printed on a full-colour, oversize heavyweight card-stock sleeve. That, in turn, is mounted onto Foamex artboard, with extending flaps, which open to reveal a large cruciform painting. It’s all then inserted into a polybag, with the film’s logo screen-printed onto it.

The included liner notes give some history of the film and the music, placing it into context in terms of other dreamlike films like Suspiria, as well as Messiah of Evil's long-tail visual history as part of the aforementioned Los Angeles, Plays Itself. Given that it's the rare record-buyer who will pick up Ondes Positives' release without already being familiar with the film, the notes are likely to provide little that's not already known by the purchaser, but the handy refresher is likely to be appreciated by anyone who's not seen the film in some time.

Along with the record, the bag includes a vintage-style postcard featuring the full Messiah of Evil painting from the record, and a set of three lobby cards (randomly selected from six different designs). It’s astonishing, and it seems a shame to relegate this to a shelf somewhere. Anyone who owns Messiah of Evil’s score will want to have it prominently displayed anywhere they possibly can.

While Ondes Positives’ release schedule is rather minimal, with only three albums since 2015, the wait for each is 100% worthwhile. The rarity of the music which they’re unearthing, and the care and design dedicated to each so painstakingly perfect, makes the arrival of new music from the label something to be heralded and celebrated. Messiah of Evil is no exception.

MESSIAH OF EVIL (1973) / COMPOSER: PHILLAN BISHOP / LABEL: ONDES POSITIVES / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW