Canada/ USA/ Norway
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: 20TH AUGUST, from ARROW VIDEO
RUNNING TIME: 97 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In 1927 Dutch Pennsylvania, 16 year old illiterate artist Billy works in a factory during the day and tries to protect his mother Elma from his drunken father Tom at night. The town is greeted with a whirlwind in the form of a powwow faith healer named John Reese. He begins healing people in the town in the name of Jesus Christ, and when Billy goes to him about his father, Reese gives him a substance that will make Tom violently ill every time he drinks alcohol. Reese rants and raves in the dark and is prone to paralyzing seizures, but Billy soon falls under his spell, something that could affect his burgeoning relationship with Alice.…
Now this is certainly one movie I’d never heard of, and it certainly seems to be a fairly obscure one considering the shortage of reviews and information on it, [I couldn’t even find many decent pictures for this review] but upon receiving the review disc through my letterbox, it was one I was keen to check out considering I’m a bit of a fan of Donald Sutherland, and also because the subject of faith healing has been one of interest to me ever since my stepfather had his back healed by one a great many years ago who seemed to conjure up an ancient Native American medicine man. The particular kind of faith healing shown in this film is called ‘powwow’, which despite its name was not of Native American origin but was based on Christianity. The blend of folk medicine and healing charms was brought over by European settlers in the United States and was strongest among the German-speaking Pennsylvania Dutch. It’s still in existence today. While no practitioner of powwow should ever be without a Bible, they rely most on a book named Long Lost Friend, written by a George Hohmann, that’s full of prayers and remedies for ailments and the like. A discussion on the validity of powwow and similar supposed methods of healing should not really be a part of this review, though I’m not sure that Apprentice For Murder makes up its mind one way or the other anyhow.
And yet it’s quite an absorbing watch that doesn’t put a serious foot wrong, even if it never quite catches fire the way it probably should. I ought to say right not that it’s only partly a horror film and may disappoint some viewers who are expecting one. The times that it tries to be scary don’t always come off in the way that they should and, while it does deal with some dark subject matter – notably demonic possession – it’s really more of a drama with some slight fantastical elements, and even these fantastical elements may not actually be there. It’s based on a strange murder investigation and subsequent trial that actually took place and, while I could find out very little about the film [at least without spending ages on the internet] and its background, it does seem that some of the known facts have been changed, though details are scarce. As I get older I seem to find myself getting increasingly annoyed when true events are altered for their presentation on film, but this wasn’t the case with Apprentice To Murder as I knew little about the real John Reese and the happenings that surrounded him. Though certainly taking its time to tell its story, I found it leisurely suspenseful and certainly intriguing until it begun to stumble somewhat around two thirds or perhaps three quarters of the way through – though it certainly never gets terrible, much of this being due to its three truly excellent lead performances which are hard to fault in any way.
Though set in Pennsylvania, much of it was filmed in Norway, on the country’s west coast and in the Bergen, and yet the buildings and landscape of a country where many are still extremely religious and many still believe in the supernatural, seem to fit the story well. The opening slow pan revealing the countryside suggests calmness, but darkness intrudes almost immediately when young Billy shoots a rabbit and, in a very Hammer Horror-type moment, is [as is the viewer] surprised by a black cloak appearing on the side of the screen. Inside it is Lars Hoeglin, a hermit who hasn’t lived in the house he once shared with his fiancee for two decades yet won’t sell it, while there also seems to be some mystery about how his brother died. Billy seems to like occasionally wondering onto Hoeglin’s land which he’s not actually supposed to be on. He returns home and gets a punch in the face when his heavy drinking, violent dad comes home. At work the next day he meets Alice, and boy does Mia Sara get a great entrance in this movie, emerging out of a steam-filled room through a doorway into the main part of the factory to wolf whistles from most of the men [today they’d probably all be arrested]. I found it hard to believe that Billy would ignore her first two tries at asking him out, but then he does have a lot on his mind, and soon has more when a rabid dog running around turns out to be owned by John Reese, the powwow who’s recently moved into the same apartment block as Alice. He asks Reese to fix his damaged eye and stop his father from drinking, both of which are successes. Soon Reese is carrying out the Lord’s work in the town, though he’s also practising medicine without a licence and is clearly struggling against demons. He was even in an asylum for three years.
Some may find that too much of the first half of the film is spent on the romance between Billy and Alice, though their first bedroom scene is one of the sweetest I’ve seen in a while, each one removing the other’s clothes with great tenderness and curiosity. And we do get a good idea of why Billy is soon torn between Alice and Reese, the two vying for his soul in a way. Reese does a hell of a lot for Billy, even teaching him how to read, so it’s little surprise that Billy soon becomes his disciple. Alice wants the two of them to go to Philadelphia, but then Reese falls ill supposedly battling a demon, and Billy feels obliged to help him any way he can, leading up the true-life killing on which the story is based and a rather rushed conclusion. The film seems to be ambivalent on the nature of Reese’s power, and leads the viewer in one direction – and then suddenly reverses itself. We see some of Reese’s visions such as him being shot by ghost-like townsfolk and the creepy face of a demon behind the glass window of a door – one rather good moment has him step into a house that suddenly becomes red all over – but they could be from the point of view of a madman or at least somebody having hallucinations, so they may not really be happening at all. However, a few odd things such as somebody breathing fire are also witnessed from the point of view of Billy, which would suggest that they’re really taking place – unless we’re intended to think that Billy is so brainwashed he’s seeing things that aren’t there. For me personally, a subtler approach could have worked better.
The three leads though are tremendous though. Up to now my favourite Sutherland performance from the 1980’s was his ruthless German spy in Eye Of The Needle, but I think he’s even better in this movie. He makes it easy to see how Reese’s magnetic personality could lure Billy in, and has never used that slightly creepy smile of his to better effect, but also displays the character’s agony well so you do sympathise with him. Throughout, the script continually asks you to change your mind about the character. Yes, he’s probably insane, and we don’t like it when he could be manipulate Billy, but he always believes that he’s doing good, and alternative medicine does sometimes succeed when the usual kind hasn’t. Chad Lowe, generally more of a TV star than a movie one, shines in his first credited role so that you really understand how torn his character is. Love the “what a fool I am” look on his face when Alice leaves him after their first encounter in which be barely says a word. I’d have probably been the same. After Legend and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Sara should have really become a big star, but it didn’t really happen and things subsequently tailed off. Here, she gives such a strong, believable portrayal of somebody totally in love that it almost hurts to watch it.
Director Ralph L. Thomas seems to have mainly made films for TV [his other major cinema outing was Ticket To Heaven, a not dissimilar tale about recruitment into a cult], and indeed Apprentice To Murder has a slight TV-movie look about it, though cinematographer Kelvin Pike tries to make some day-for-night interior scenes visually interesting with employment of shadows, while certain moments, such as Billy and Alice’s nocturnal visit to Hoeglin’s house, have a nice texture to them. Charles Gross’s okay music score alternates between synthesiser oddness, calming piano and out of place saxophone. Generally though Apprentice For Murder has enough going for it to make it worth watching even if it’s not entirely satisfying. It’s certainly not a neglected classic, but I’ m definitely glad that it seems to have some fans at Arrow who have decided to try to give it some more exposure.
Apprentice To Murder gets its Blu-ray debut here in a restoration that perfectly maintains that 80’s look while delivering the sharpness and detail Blu-ray viewers have become accustomed to seeing. No bleeding, no mismanagement of grain – I could find no faults.
Arrow have seemingly gone beyond the call of duty and given this little known film some fine special features. First up is an audio commentary from film journalist and author Bryan Reesman. It may have been hard to find someone to talk about this film for an hour and a half, but Reesman, not someone I recognised from commentaries, does a pretty good job and doesn’t leave any large gaps. For a film about which there seems to be little background information – as even he admits at one point – he finds a hell of a lot to talk about, sometimes relating what’s taking place onscreen but usually maintaining interest, be it the film’s different titles in different countries, or more detail on the original case and how the film differs from it. He thinks that Reese does a great deal of “acting” in the film, which is a little different to what I saw, but then again he knows the film far better than me.
Onto the interviews, and first up is Original Sin, fifteen minutes of Kat Ellinger, who’s becoming an Arrow stalwart, discussing religion in connection with horror, mentioning many films along with trailer clips. The links between religion and horror are probably obvious to anyone, but Kat mentions two Gothic texts I was unaware of and must check out having a great interest in these things, and makes an interesting and very true observation about Apprentice To Murder that goes some way to explaining the odd effect it has despite little happening for much of the time: it often plays on what we think we know about religious horror. Colour Me Kelvin, running ten minutes, has the cinematographer Kelvin Pike provide his recollections of filming in Norway and working on the project. including nearly running out of camera magazines, though I think he struggles to recall very much. Though talking for only eight minutes, makeup supervisor Robin Grantham, who apparently went to work on the film at short notice because he was replacing someone else, seems to remember more, telling what Sutherland was like to work with, recalling his hat falling off during a take, and saying how the production was very disorganised and even had pages often being torn out of the script. The two interviews are both very short but kudos to Arrow for getting them anyway.
A curious film which doesn’t quite come off as powerfully as it should but which still has a great deal to recommend it and which will probably stick in the mind, Apprentice To Murder on Arrow’s Blu-ray comes Recommended by the Doc.
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
*Brand new 2K restoration of the film from the original 35mm interpositive
*High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
*Original lossless mono soundtrack
*Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
*New audio commentary by author and critic Bryan Reesman
*Original Sin: New video interview on religious horror cinema with Kat Ellinger, author and editor-in-chief of Diabolique Magazine
*Colour Me Kelvin: New video interview with cinematographer Kelvin Pike
*Grantham To Bergen: New video interview with makeup supervisor Robin Grantham
*Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Haunt Love
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Paul Corupe