This is quite weird
"Apprentice to Murder" combines three major elements that I always deliberately seek for in horror/cult movies, but rarely ever find together. And yet, in spite of featuring this rather unique potpourri, the film sadly left me Siberian cold. For starters (1) the film is obscure and incredibly hard to find. Usually there's a good reason for this, but personally I still hope to stumble upon some genuine undiscovered gems from time to time. Then (2) the story is based, or at least loosely inspired, by true events. More than often, facts are far more astounding than fiction could ever be. And finally but foremost (3), "Apprentice to Murder" takes place in the 1920's and I personally think this is the most suitable time to narrate a tale of the macabre. The ambiance that comes with this decade is like automatically melancholic and downbeat. The people were poor, vulnerable to all sort of illnesses and petrified of God. Why there aren't any more horror movies timed in the 1920's is completely beyond me.
"Apprentice to Murder" has all this, except that
the story, inspired by true events as they supposedly took place in Pennsylvania in 1927, honestly isn't worth telling. It's fairly dull and commonplace. Definitely not something to consider as thought-provoking or recognize as one of the darkest pages in recent history. Donald Sutherland, who couldn't look less interested in starring in this film, depicts a so- called Powwow Doctor practicing in a rural Pennsylvanian county, a few days of traveling away from Philadelphia. After his "cures" the father of a young illiterate adolescent with a drawing talent, he takes the boy under his wing as an apprentice. Dr. Reese teaches Billy to read and write and also gradually becomes convinced that he can also become a blessed healer, much against the will of Billy's girlfriend Alice. But Dr. Reese and especially his methods are unorthodox and often abased as witchery by the superstitious and deeply religious communion. When some of his cases don't end well, Billy is dragged along in a downwards spiral of accusations, curses and punishments.
Director R.L. Thomas obviously treasured the best of intentions, but sadly doesn't manage to make full use of the contemporary folklore mysticism and small-town paranoia. For way too long, the screenplay exclusively focuses on the bonding sessions between the Dr. and his young acolyte. I swear, the undertones even get homosexual at certain moments, whereas the really interesting aspects of the story remain untouched. The actually disturbing ordeal our Powwow has to face (a creepy local hermit who may or not be the Devil himself) is incomprehensibly pushed to the background, like it's some kind of insignificant sub plot. The filming locations and set pieces are terrific, but apparently R.L Thomas and his crew had to travel to the beautiful region of Hordaland in Norway in order to recreate the rural Pennsylvania of 1927. "Apprentice to Murder" definitely remains a curious 80's feature, well worth checking out if you cherish cheap but ambitious cult cinema, but overall it's a missed opportunity.