ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Apprentice to Murder (1988) Blu Ray (Arrow)
An adolescent becomes enraptured by a faith healer
This tale of disastrously misplaced faith is inspired by a true story. It is set in a rural community in 1927 Pennsylvania and features Chad Lowe as Billy Kelly, a 16-year-old living with his mother Elma (Rutanya Alda) and alcoholic, abusive father Tom (Eddie Jones). One day, while walking home with a beautiful young lady named Alice (Mia Sara) who works at the same factory as himself, they come across an angry, seemingly rabid dog in the middle of the road. While they hide behind a bush and the other villagers flee in terror, an elderly man, played by Donald Sutherland, manages to tame the dog by using a simple religious ritual. Alice tells Tom that she lives as a lodger in his house. She also reveals that his name is John Reese and that he is a Pow-wow doctor - a traditional practitioner who uses faith and magic in order to cure ills.
Later on, Billy decides to pay John a visit in order to get help for his father’s alcoholism. To his surprise, John not only provides the young man with a remedy for his father’s ailment; he also casts a blessing on a facial wound which he received at the latter’s hand. When the injury heals practically overnight, Billy becomes convinced that this mysterious man’s powers are real. He decides to become his apprentice and learn his craft.
While he is at work, Alice meets him during his lunch break. She speaks to him for two reasons: firstly, to ask him to take her out on a date and secondly, to express her own concerns about John. She tells him that she has heard rumours that he spent four years in a mental asylum. While Billy gradually becomes involved in a romantic relationship with her, he refuses to believe her stories about his new mentor. However, things take a darker turn after John’s attempt to cure a young girl results in her death. This is followed by a string of increasingly inexplicable, possibly supernatural incidents. There may be a connection between these occurrences and a sinister local man named Lars Hoeglin (Knut Husebø). On the other hand, John might be playing with Billy’s young and impressionable mind.
Watch a trailer:
A difficult film to catergorise
This Canada/USA/Norway co-production (with Norwegian locations standing in for 1920s rural Pennsylvania) was co-written by Allan Scott, who also worked on the classic Don’t Look Now (1973). Like that film, is a genuine hard-to-pigeonhole oddity. Indeed, the American distributors and co-producers, the Roger Corman-owned New World Pictures, didn’t really know what to do with it themselves. Despite featuring a big-name actor in the shape of Donald Sutherland, it only received a low-profile release (it went straight-to-video in the UK) and was given a title which frankly gives it the misleading impression of being an Agatha Christie-style affair.
It’s a slow-burner, mixing period drama with some nods towards religious horror, as largely seen from the POV of the well-intentioned but naive Billy. While the results lack the sure-footedness to pull this off with complete success, there is certainly some interest to be found here, especially in the attention to detail invested in this rather technologically backward and superstitious rural milieu. The way in which a richly-defined supernatural world is built up around its central characters gradually works its way under the viewer’s skin. Ralph L. Thomas’s direction is relatively straightforward for the most part but he does manage some flashes of style here and there, including some effective use of long shots for moments of high drama, and a dreamlike courtship montage involving Billy and Alice dancing in an empty summer house at night.
Donald Sutherland turns in another of his great wizened, eccentric character performances here. Moreover, while the validity of his purported magical powers is dubious, to say the least, he comes across as being as much of a vulnerable victim as a cunning manipulator. Indeed, it is arguable that he is - to some extent - at the mercy of his own mental health issues rather than a straight-ahead conniving psychopath, a condition exacerbated by the role which he is expected to fulfil in a deeply superstitious community. If anything, however, this makes him more dangerous to the young Billy because it is all the harder to identify a wolf in sheep’s clothing when he, perhaps, doesn’t even believe himself to be a wolf. While Chad Lowe (younger brother of ‘80s Brat Pack icon Rob Lowe) is serviceable enough as the hapless protagonist, he looks and sounds more like a 1980s teen in traditional garb than a truly authentic character from the period, especially considering the amount of effort put into historical accuracy elsewhere. Mia Sara, however, fares better as his intelligent and charmingly seductive girlfriend.
Unfortunately, a few out-of-place elements prevent this intriguing effort from working quite as well as it should have done. Charles Gross’s largely atmospheric soundtrack mixes in some typically 1980s synth cues which really aren’t appropriate to the distinctive period setting. The pseudo-supernatural hallucination scenes - some of which feature pyrotechnics, infernal red lighting, and stuntmen being hurled through windows and wooden walls - are also quite jarring and overblown when set against the determinedly low-key approach elsewhere. They feel like they could have been lifted from one of numerous other common-or-garden New World Pictures horror-fantasies (such as House, Hellraiser or Warlock). It’s possible that the company forced the filmmakers to add these scenes so as to have some action to include in the trailer.
Regardless of its flaws, however, Apprentice to Murder is the kind of film which provokes thought and discussion long after the end credits have rolled.
Runtime: 92 mins
Dir: Ralph L. Thomas
Script: Wesley Moore, Allan Scott
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Chad Lowe, Mia Sara, Knut Husebø, Rutanya Alda, Eddie Jones
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
No complaints in the looks or sound department here. Norway’s autumnal hues look great here, while Charles Gross’s musical folk/jazz/rock/synth fusion of a soundtrack feels rich and warm.
Audio Commentary by Bryan Reesman
New York entertainment journalist Reesman provides this decent commentary, which spends a lot of time exploring the film’s well-researched portrayal of Pennsylvanian Pow-wow magic. He also discusses the true story upon which it was loosely based. In Pennsylvania in 1928, Nelson Rehmeyer was murdered by John Blymire and two accomplices, who were convinced by a local witch named Nellie Noll that he had put a hex on Blymire’s livestock. Rehmeyer’s house was opened as a tourist attraction known as Hex Hollow in 2007. Some locals believe the house and the surrounding forest to be haunted.
In this 2018 Arrow-exclusive featurette, Diabolique Magazine’s Kat Ellinger discusses the role of religion in horror, up to and including Apprentice to Murder. She starts off from its early literary incarnations, in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (first published in 1824) by James Hogg and in the early American Gothic novels of Charles Brockden Brown. She also takes a look at a selection horror films spanning across the 20th century, from the numerous variations of the Dracula mythos to the “satanic panic” tie-in movies of the 1960s to 1980s, ranging from Rosemary’s Baby to Bad Dreams. It’s a great little whistle-stop tour.
Colour Me Kelvin
A shortish interview with cinematographer Kelvin Pike, who talks about his experiences working on the film. He recalls that the landscape was very beautiful but, in true Norway tradition, the drinks were very expensive. When one producer bought a round of drinks for the cast and crew, the bar tab ran to about £1000! He also reveals that the “ghost” hallucination scene was done by filming a scene, rewinding, then filming another over the top of it.
Grantham to Bergen
Another interview, this time with makeup supervisor Robin Grantham. He reveals that he was flown out at short notice with his wife and daughter to Norway, where they stayed in a clapboard house. Interestingly, just before the interview finishes, he briefly mentions that the production was disorganised and that “they were tearing pages out of the script daily”.
A theatrical trailer and collector’s booklet round out the extras here.
This interesting, near-forgotten film may not be perfect but it is still a nice pick for Arrow. Worth a look if you want something vaguely horror-esque but different from the usual.