Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Brotherhood of Satan (1971)

Ben (Charles Bateman), his daughter K.T. (Geri Reischl) and his girlfriend Nicky (Ahna Capri) are on their way to visit K.T.'s grandmother for the child's birthday. Somehow, the family manage to get themselves lost, and are confronted with some slightly peculiar circumstances that culminate in the discovery of a car wreck (with assorted dead bodies) by the side of the road. It looks as if it has been flattened by a tank, which in a sense is exactly what happened to it.

There's a small town nearby, but the help Ben and Nicky might have hoped for there isn't forthcoming. First, the Sheriff (the movie's producer and writer, long-time character actor L.Q. Jones) only asks very peculiar and suspicious questions with just the right hint of fear lying below them, but that's nothing against the reaction the rest of the town's inhabitants shows; there's the promise of mob violence in the air.

Ben does the logical thing and drives away like someone with an angry mob on his family's tail should, but is soon stopped by that old classic, the appearing/then disappearing mysterious robed person on the road that likes to break innocent cars with its trick.

So it's back to town for the family. There, they first sneak into a house where they find more dead bodies. For some reason, they decide to go back to the sheriff. Fortunately, everyone's much more rational now, and some time around now, the sheriff must explain what is actually going on around here (not that the audience is allowed to hear - we have to puzzle everything together for ourselves): families have been brutally slaughtered, their children have disappeared, and some violent power has isolated the town from the rest of the world. Everyone's tired and doesn't know what's going on.

What the townspeople don't know is that a coven of elderly satanists has taken possession of their town and is planning on using the children in a ritual needed to guarantee their immortality, as they seem to have done many times before.

The Brotherhood of Satan is a difficult case, at once frustrating and compelling. The film was directed by TV specialist Bernard McEveety, and is much nicer to look at as well as more thoughtfully directed than you'd expect by someone coming from the small screen. McEveety really knows how to use the wide screen format, and he also knows how to convey a feeling of isolation in wide open spaces. There are some moments of great visual power in the film, especially surrounding the murders, which are committed through a sympathetic magic that lets only half-real, yet very tangible correspondences of children's toys do the killing. McEveety mostly only hints at the way this is happening instead of showing it and so manages to avoid the possible ridiculousness of large animatronic dolls ripping people apart. A single tear rolling down a doll's blank uncaring eye is a lot more disquieting than anything the film could show. Alas, McEveety doesn't go through with this technique for the whole of the film, so late in the game there's one decapitation by knight that is shown much too clearly. Obviously, it doesn't work at all and doesn't fit the film's mood to boot.

The film's love for hinting instead of showing is at once its great strength and its great comedown. While never telling anything to one's audience directly is certainly helpful in keeping up a mood of uncertainty and slight irreality, there are too many moments here where not explaining things just doesn't make sense. I was never able to understand what the non-Satanist characters were doing and why - their part in the plot seems too passive to be believable. Sure, it is thematically and emotionally fitting (and it's the 70s, too) to show the figures of authority as helpless and ineffectual, but I still suspect that it would have been better if the film showed them doing something and failing at it than to just have them sitting around looking sleepy for most of the time. Their passivity and the fact that the film's plot just seems to stop after the half-hour mark gives Brotherhood of Satan a feeling of stasis that threatens to devolve into simple boredom at any moment. In fact, less patient viewers might be bored very early on and become unwilling to follow the film to its conclusion.

I'm pretty sure my background with watching European horror movies of the 60s and 70s helped me quite a bit with getting through the film and getting something out of it. Although most European films of the period aren't quite as drab as Brotherhood gets, and quite as disinterested in having things happen on screen, the film shows a clear connection to their non-realist sensibilities.

The differences between this and most Italian or French movies of the style is that the European films would try to make their slow bits visually more arresting or put some sleaze or blood in the foreground to distract or hypnotize the audience, both things McEveety's film unfortunately eschews.

Still, I found The Brotherhood of Satan very much worth watching. I won't deny that the movie's boring parts are extraordinarily boring, but its creepy parts are exceptionally creepy, and its strange parts exceedingly strange.


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