Blu-ray Review: The Brotherhood of Satan (1971)



My memory is getting better! Well, maybe not. See, when I requested a review copy of The Brotherhood of Satan from Arrow, it was because I was sure I hadn't seen it and it sounded up my alley. But when I popped the disc in, something about the first scene triggered deja vu, so I did what I should have done in the first place and checked to see if I had indeed seen it, discovering that I had and wrote a review, not even eight years ago (it was actually a post-daily selection! You'd think I'd be able to remember those better!). Want a kicker? Not only did the scene not turn out to be the one from the movie I was thinking of (turned out to be the opening of Hell High, where the girl accidentally kills a pair of teen lovers), but nothing else in the movie really rang a bell.

On the plus side, that's great, because it was like seeing it for the first time, and it's like, really good. Better than my original review lets on, in fact! It's the kind of '70s horror I really love, where on the surface it seems like any other B movie that probably played second at the drive-ins (indeed, per the IMDb, it played with THX-1138), but has that little extra pep in its step that gives it more personality and helps it stick with you. I originally noted director Bernard McEveety's "matter of fact" approach to his job, but failed to note one of its key examples (minor spoiler for 50 year old movie ahead), that the movie's villain is identified relatively early but then returns to act as an ally to our heroes, without the sort of squinty faced/raised eyebrow/dun dun DUNNNNN kind of music that usually accompany such things. If you missed the in between scene where he was clearly established as the villain, there is nothing to point to his true nature in the later scene, which is kind of chilling in a way.

Also, I want to point this scene out for another reason. If you've seen the movie, it's the one where the priest, the doctor, the dad, the sheriff, and the deputy are all in the sheriff's house trying to figure out what to do next. McEveety lets most of the five-ish minute scene play out in a master, with lots of cross talk and all five men in the frame doing something. It was probably a time/money saving measure, but the actors had to all be in sync with their blocking and dialogue to make sure it didn't turn chaotic, something that couldn't happen if the director just stuck a camera in the corner and called "action" on five amateur performers. It's legitimately impressive filmmaking from a technical/logistics point of view, something you don't often find in these sort of things (indeed, as I noted before, the plot setup is very much like that of Manos, a film without one impressive technical aspect).

It also doesn't spell out what is happening right away, and even though it came before things like Texas Chain Saw Massacre, will "mislead" a new audience a few times before it shows its full hand. Things start off with a family driving through the southwest and seeing the aftermath of a grisly accident, only to be accosted by locals when they try to report it. So it seems like a "run afoul of a creepy town" movie, but later we learn what's got the townsfolk riled up, and realize that they're actually innocent. And due to the likely impossibility of the FX it would need to pull off, it's not until we've seen a few deaths that it becomes clear that (spoiler again) it's the toys doing it. Later developments almost give it an Under the Dome type feel, so I can't help but wonder if Stephen King is a fan (or at least saw it and subconsciously got inspired by it).

If he was, I wish he was on the disc, because they seemingly had trouble locating anyone of note to contribute an interview or a commentary. There is an interview with two of the kids, but as it's been fifty years and they were, you know, children, you'd be a fool to think their memories are either that strong or plentiful - they seem to remember having fun and getting to eat as much cake as they wanted during the filming of the party scene, and one of them remembers playing spin the bottle with the others, but the other one doesn't. I guess I can appreciate that it's a fairly brief interview instead of a commentary?

There IS a commentary by Kim Newman and Sean Hogan though, and it is as entertaining as the film. They're fans but do not consider it an unassailable masterpiece, so the track is mostly them kind of giggling at some of its wackier elements (like the cult leader's robe) while pointing out how it fits into the larger cult/devil movie canon, particularly the pre-Exorcist ones that weren't so beholden to more traditional religious iconography (indeed, the priest here is ultimately kind of useless). And there's even more of that history to glean from the video essay by David Flint, as well as the included booklet which devotes one of its two essays to the sub-genre (pre and post-Exorcist). The other is about producer/writer/co-star L.Q. Jones, a Peckinpah regular who apparently also wrote a tie-in novel for this film! Adding it to my wishlist ASAP.

I often wonder how I'd feel about this or that movie from HMAD past that I can now no longer remember much about (even some of the ones in my book, now written six years ago about movies I watched as many years ago then, trigger "Wait, what was that one about?" kind of reactions). How many other gems like this are out there, forgotten and/or written off in my head as decent timekillers at best? I am cursed with generally seeing little reason to revisit a non-favorite film unless I plan to write about it (my stance is that it's time being taken away from watching something new), which means if I remembered seeing Brotherhood I probably would have shrugged off this Arrow release with a "Seen it, eh, nothing special" kind of reaction. My tastes change, my mood may differ... there's any number of reasons that I could be much more endeared with something that was essentially site filler when I take another look at it a decade (give or take) down the road. At any rate, while I usually curse my poor memory, this is one time that it worked in my favor.

What say you?


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