OCTOBER 30, 2013
Due to travel, work, and other engagements, I only managed to make it to my good friend Phil Blankenship's month-long United States of Horror series twice this past month. Once was for Carnival of Souls, which I thought I had already reviewed here but never did (and now I'd need to watch again to do it right, so oh well), and the other was for The Brotherhood of Satan, which I had never even heard of and went knowing perfectly well I'd fall asleep thanks to a long, nap-free work day. Sure enough, I was dozing before the first reel had even finished, and kept going in and out throughout, but Youtube/Crackle came to the rescue, offering up a seemingly legal stream on Youtube (it had ad breaks, and Crackle's legit - right?) that allowed me to rewatch what I missed (and get a better sense of what was happening in the scenes I didn't).
But of course, you can't take that as a critique of the movie's quality; it IS a bit slow but it's a fine entry in the 70's Satanic Horror sub-genre, offering up some great kills, loads of creepiness, and a grim ending that left me even more impressed. Also, somewhat hilariously, it's kind of a ripoff of Manos, with a couple and their daughter driving through the Southwest and ending up the victims of a devil cult led by a dude with silly wardrobe (and, again, grim ending). Obviously, it's SLIGHTLY better than that masterpiece, since the filmmakers knew what they were doing and had crazy fancy things like sync sound and a couple of professional actors at their disposal. Obviously Rosemary's Baby was the other big influence (OK, Manos was probably coincidental), as nearly all supernaturally-tinged movies of this era would be until The Exorcist came along and allowed greedy producers to mix and match as they saw fit.
The supernatural element is a rather original one, and I'm pretty sure is unique to this film save for maybe a couple moments in Dolls - the folks are killed by giant sized versions of toys. So a kid's GI Joe-ish tank turns full-sized and crushes a car full of randoms, a figurine of a knight on a horse is suddenly big enough to really lop off a guy's head, etc. Due to budgetary limitations we don't actually see how this process completely works, but we get the gist and it's pretty clever, as is the overall plot, which takes a while to start becoming clear. At first it's the standard "hero ends up in weird town, isn't welcome, tries to escape, gets stuck there..." type movie, but with all these weird toy scenes and other oddities serving to intrigue while letting us know that it's not the usual gang of inbred cannibals or whatever (of course, it's 1971, so there was no Texas Chainsaw to rip off yet, but you know what I mean). I won't spoil it other than to say Tommy Wirkola must have seen the film, as he seemingly lifted one of its plot points in Witch Hunters.
Adding to the creepiness is the very matter-of-fact approach director Bernard McEveety takes with the material. He adds a bit of flair to the kill scenes and lets his actors go into camp-mode on those occasions, but otherwise everyone is unsettlingly down-to-earth about their devil business. The leader, played by Strother Martin, is almost TOO gentle with his deliveries (he reminded me a bit of James Karen, in fact - not exactly the scariest guy in the world), though on the flipside it makes his dialogue easier to digest - if he was shouting that sort of gibberish in a scary voice the movie would completely derail. But on that note, it had a very specific rhythm and pattern to it, leading me to believe that it was indeed actual Satanic text being spoken and not just made-up movie nonsense. We see a few "church" scenes and it all seemed very genuine to me, as if I could match it up to the equivalent portions of a Catholic mass. "Oh, this is a sermon. This is like their Communion. This is like the part where we all shake hands and say 'Peace be to you'..." I'm sure that no part of the Church of Satan involves turning Tonka Trucks into deadly weapons, but they almost definitely at least STARTED with legitimate text.
I do wish the pace was tightened JUST a bit. Shooting things so matter of factly may add some creepiness to the scenes where folks casually murder one another, but it robs the film of any real tension otherwise. Messiah Of Evil came to mind (70s, cult, town, uh... saw it at Cinefamily...), and I couldn't help but think of that film's standout sequences and how they'd stick with you when they were over, keeping you tense until the next one - this doesn't really have anything much like that. The father also becomes sort of a bystander in his own movie after awhile, robbing us of our surrogate for chunks at a time. It gives the film a loose feel that some might like, but considering how it ends up I can't help but think it'd be an even stronger film if it kept the dad front and center more often.
Otherwise, I quite enjoyed it, and am surprised it's relatively obscure - even my devil/witch movie obsessed friend Sam Zimmerman hadn't seen it. But this had a benefit - due to never being played, the print was IMMACULATE; seriously one of the best 35mm prints I've seen at a revival. It's not unlikely that this movie would end up on a budget set someday (if it's not already) and that would be how I saw it for the first time; all scratched up on some cropped transfer from a VHS tape or something. So thanks, Phil!
What say you?