The Ultimate Messiah Of Evil by Code Red (DVD/ Blu-Ray Comparison)

I first saw Messiah of Evil theatrically at an Exhumed screening several years ago. I dug aspects of it for sure, but it was also off-putting and definitely weird. The two friends I saw it with I think thought it was the worst movie they'd ever seen. Meanwhile, I've read online reviews treating it like one of the most masterful American horror films of all time. I was hooked enough that when Code Red released a 35th Anniversary Special Edition, I had to have it, partially to revisit the film but even more so to see extras and learn more about this oddity.
The Sorrow & the Pity wasn't the
only film to cameo in Annie Hall.
1973's Messiah of Evil (subtitled The Second Coming on Code Red's discs, which was its original pre-release title), is definitely its own unique movie. It's got a strong Lovecraftian influence in the story, but that awkward, low budget Americana feel you tend to fine in Mystery Science Theater 3000 movies, like if Roman Polanski directed Manos: The Hands of Fate. It's written and directed by Willard Huyck, who went on to write American Graffiti, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and write and direct Howard the Duck. So imagine the guy who made those movies now doing an artsy horror experiment on an almost amateur level but heavy on atmosphere. If you're having a hard time picturing that, well, that's why your first viewing is sure to get you by surprise, no matter how forewarned you've been. Some of most memorable aspects of my first viewing are just seemingly random bits and pieces, like the crazy art deco interiors of the lighthouse our lead characters stay in, the awfully delivered lines of the young girlfriend who got unintentional, big laughs when she shouted "this food tastes shitty" at the dinner table, and the creepy look of the film's albino villain standing around an old gas station.
 
When Exhumed announced this film, they said, "Messiah of Evil is one of the finest, most neglected horror films of the 1970s. Only ever released cropped on VHS and on poor-quality, bootleg DVDs, this is one film that needs to be seen projected thanks to its 2.35:1 'scope photography, which is essential to creating the film's bleak mood." This is so true. Their print was pretty aged and worn, but seeing it in 2.35 as opposed to the ugly full-screen discs companies like Mill Creek put out still made a huge difference, transforming scenes that looked ugly, poorly staged and clunky to actually very stylish, artistically framed images.

For a while I was pretty happy with my 35th Anniversary DVD; I didn't feel the need to upgrade right away when Code Red later released their 40th Anniversary blu-ray. But after it was nominated for a Rondo Award for 'best restoration or upgrade,' it got my attention again. Apparently, it was more than just the restored DVD transfer bumped up to HD, it had, as the back of the case states, "2014 color corrected by award winner Steve Peer." Okay, sold. So, now I've got the 35th DVD, the 40th blu, and even one of those old fullscreen (to be fair, I don't believe they're actually "bootleg") DVDs taken from Mill Creek's Chilling Classics 50 Movie Pack. See how far this movie's come.
Mill Creek DVD on top, Code Red DVD mid, and Code Red blu bottom.
Wow, look at that: an evolution to make Charles Darwin proud. You can see Mill Creek really struggled to fit the picture into their 1.33:1 frame, heavily squishing it horizontally to make everything tall and skinny. And they still had to cut off almost half the picture on the sides. There's nothing open matte about their version, it has no more vertical information than Code Red's 2.35:1 discs. The colors are overly brightened and washed out. Oh, and it also has interlacing/ghost frame issues, as you can see in the third set of shots - yuck!
Code Red's 2009 DVD left; Code Red's 2014 blu right.
Meanwhile, there's not really any new detail between the 35th and 40th Anniversary editions - it's not like, oh now I can read the tags on those shirts - but it's a smoother, cleaner image without all the smudged grain of the standard def edition. Look at her chin on the right-hand side (her left), or the grain on her neck. The HD is a nice bump. But most importantly, the new color timing really makes a difference. Everything is much more natural and attractive, another iteration to further illustrate the real talent behind the cinematography. It's a real eye-opener, progressing from my earliest impressions to now - these new screencaps are reminding me of Suspiria, not Manos!

The blu also ups the audio to DTS-HD, which does sound clearer and stronger. One thing, the only thing, the Mill Creek has going in its favor, however - and even this is debatable - is that it includes the original opening song. Originally, the movie opened with a loud torch song called "Hold On To Love" being sung over the pre-credits sequence and into the opening credits. It was certainly an unusual choice, but so is every other choice in this movie. A lot of fans probably remember that song (it certainly stood out) and felt it added to the film's captivating strangeness. But it's also very campy and detracts from one's ability to engage the film as a serious horror film. Code Red, on both their DVD and blu, removed it at the director's request, and let the scene play out with just its natural foley and sound effects. It does feel more creepy and potentially scary that way (though I'm not sure this film ever actually reaches actual scariness), but it's exactly the sort of thing that can drive purists up the wall.
Code Red's extras are really rewarding, too. ...Of course, Mill Creek has nothing. But Code Red created a great 22-minute making of featurette, including interviews with Huyck, co-writer Gloria Katz, associate editors Billy Weber and Morgan Fischer and director of photography Stephen M. Katz. There's also a separate interview with "this stuff is shitty tasting" actress Joy Bang, which is a 9-minute audio-only conversation, which is pretty fun - she struggles to remember things at first, but she actually has some good things to say. Huyck and Gloria Katz return for a moderated audio commentary, as well. Then there are two of Huyck's rare early short films, a drama called Down These Mean Streets and a short documentary on a performance art piece called The Bride Stripped Down. A bunch (seven) of Code Red bonus trailers rounded things out on the DVD.

The blu-ray ports everything from the DVD over except(!) the Joy Bang interview, which is a little puzzling and disappointing. It also ditches the bonus trailers, I guess, but that's nothing. The shame is the interview. I wouldn't recommend double-dipping for it, unless Messiah of Evil is one of your all-time favorite horror movies... or you're living large enough to be a total completionist. The interview never really gets that in-depth or fascinating. But if you've got the DVD and are upgrading, be sure to hang onto it.
Messiah of Evil isn't a movie I'd recommend to everybody. You've got to be really open-minded, prepared to be forgiving of older, low budget films, and be in the market for something different. But for some people, it's going to be right up your alley and you won't just mildly enjoy it, you're going to love it. I'm not sure if I'm 100% in the love category, but I'm getting closer with each viewing. And if you are a fan of this film, there's no question Code Red's 40th Anniversary is the ideal version to own. If you've already got the 35th DVD, yes, the improved picture is worth upgrading. But the really serious fans should note that both previous discs have their reasons for owning, too (the Joy Bang interview and the "Hold Onto Love" song), so keep that in mind.

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