Apprentice to Murder, 1988.
Directed by Ralph L. Thomas.
Starring Donald Sutherland, Chad Lowe, Mia Sara, Rutanya Alda, Eddie Jones, Adrian Sparks, and Knut Husebø.
A young man living in rural Pennsylvania in the 1920s falls under the spell of the local preacher/medicine man.
Religion has always played a part in horror, both in literature and in the movies, and although it can often go down the path of overblown theatrics, head-spinning and cod-satanic gobbledegook – not that there’s anything wrong with that – it is subtlety and restraint that often prove to be the most effective elements in making an atmospheric and spooky folk tale. Apprentice to Murder sets itself up as a rural horror with religious undertones but after posing its initial questions and dilemmas using some standard character types (and one standout performance) the film fails to ignite the senses in the way that it promises with such a defined sense of period setting right from the opening credits.
In a way, however, that isn’t such a bad thing as Apprentice to Murder never quite goes where you think it is going to go, meaning it never gets predictable and keeps you intrigued as to where this story of a 16 year-old boy and his friendship/infatuation with a middle-aged preacher/powwow doctor will go. This intrigue is helped by a brilliant performance from Donald Sutherland (The Eye of the Needle/Don’t Look Now) as John Reese, a faith healer, practitioner of folk medicine and a man who clearly has sanity issues from his eccentric and occasionally irrational behaviour. Sutherland is wonderful as Reese and while his appearances are the best bits of the film it is up to Chad Lowe (Supergirl) to carry the bulk of the story and this is where Apprentice to Murder comes undone as Lowe tries his best to wring some emotion from the somewhat anachronistic script despite there not being enough content there to do anything other than set up the characters in a way that teases your expectations while the payoff for the story not going where you think is that it doesn’t really go anywhere at all.
The crux of the story, such that it is, is that a mysterious man (played by Norwegian actor Knut Husebø) living in a small rural Pennsylvanian community displays signs of apparent devilry by killing and skinning animals and generally skulking around the place looking a bit narked. Teenage boy Billy Kelly (Lowe) comes from a troubled home where his alcoholic father keeps getting drunk and abusing Billy and his mother Elma (Rutanya Alda – Amityville II: The Possession) and so he turns to deeply religious powwow doctor Reese for help but Reese is convinced the mysterious rabbit skinner is an agent of Satan and so recruits the vulnerable Billy into helping him root out the evil in the village. At the same time, Billy meets and falls in love with the older Alice (Mia Sara – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) who is desperate to leave the village and head to the city of Philadelphia for a new life but Billy is so enthralled by John Reese and his eccentric ways that he has a huge decision to make – start a new life with Alice or stay with Reese and fight what they see as the forces of evil, with potentially tragic consequences.
Despite selling itself as a folky occult horror, Apprentice to Murder doesn’t match up to the same standards of intensity, terror or gore as the usual reference points of Witchfinder General or The Blood on Satan’s Claw, or even with more modern standards such as The Witch. There is a slight sense of uncertainty when we first see John Reese that evokes Robert Mitchum’s evil preacher Harry Powell from The Night of the Hunter but whether it is down to a directorial decision or Donald Sutherland’s choices in playing the character there is a distinct lack of menace throughout the film that makes the end result feel like a slightly darker version of The Waltons. The costumes and camera work are all top notch, the 2K restoration looks great and the supplementary material – featuring an interesting interview with writer and film critic Kat Ellinger about the use of religion in horror movies, interviews with cinematographer Kelvin Pike and makeup supervisor Robin Grantham, and a fascinating audio commentary by author and critic Bryan Reesman – is certainly worth investigating but as a film on its own Apprentice to Murder commits the worst crime that a movie can commit and that is to be quite boring; not terrible, certainly watchable but hardly exciting enough to hold your attention for its whole 92 minutes as Chad Lowe pouts, tries to look earnest despite having no chemistry with Mia Sara at all and gets overshadowed by Donald Sutherland being excellent despite not having a great deal to work with. Overall, a fairly loaded package of a decidedly average film that feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity to tell a compelling story, even though it is based on apparently true events.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★★★ / Movie: ★★