Monday, May 2, 2011

Masterpiece Theatre meets The Exorcist: "Apprentice to Murder" (1988)

In 1927 Dutch Pennsylvania, Billy (Chad Lowe) is a sixteen year old illiterate artist who works in a factory during the day and protects his mother Elma (Rutanya Alda) from his drunken father Tom (Eddie Jones) at night. Beautiful Alice (Mia Sara) meets Billy, and the two begin a friendship.

The town is greeted with a whirlwind in the form of a powwow medicine man/faith healer named John Reese (Donald Sutherland). Reese's entire life has been a struggle with Satan, and he begins healing people in the town in the name of Jesus Christ. Billy goes to him about his drunken father, and Reese gives him a substance that will make Tom violently ill every time he drinks alcohol. Living in the same boarding house, Alice sees a different side of Reese, a strange man who rants and raves in the dark and is prone to paralyzing seizures. Billy falls under Reese's spell, bailing him out when he is arrested for practicing medicine without a license after the death of a local girl.

As Billy and Alice fall in love, Billy becomes Reese's assistant. His father is now sober, and Billy is ready to escape to Philadelphia with Alice. However, Reese is felled during an exorcism to get rid of a demon that is killing a farmer's livestock. He goes with the young couple to Philadelphia, and Alice leaves the pair so she can get on with her life. Finally, death brings Billy home, and he and Reese must track down the weird hermit Lars (Knut Husebo), whom Reese is convinced is the devil.

Ignore the old New World Video box cover for this film. The scene with a cloaked figure standing over the cute girl does not happen in the film. This is not horror, but a very suspenseful and creepy psychological thriller. The first question you will want to know is if Reese is really healing these people. There are terrifying scenes of demon possession, but we quickly realize they may be occurring in his mind. We find out he spent four years in a mental institution, is he insane? Billy is so desperate to get out of the small town, he is willing to believe anything. Alice loves Billy, but she is a realist who puts her own humble aspirations (to be a typist) before her relationship.

Chad Lowe, always such an underrated actor, is really wonderful here. He doesn't play Billy as a wide eyed fool. Mia Sara, whose career has suffered lately, is also good. Alda and Jones do fine jobs as Billy's troubled parents. Special mention should be made for Sutherland. His character is off the wall to begin with, but Sutherland turns him into a sympathetic man of God who may be serving Him in all the wrong ways. There is something in Sutherland's eyes that make you think he is either sincere or scheming. He has a very physical role, and he is fantastic.

The film was shot in Norway, and the crew is full of Norwegian names. The location is excellent. Thomas directs with real suspense, never caving in to pressure to trot out gore for gore's sake, or sex for exploitation's sake. Billy and Alice's love scenes are dark, and sweet in a way.

I have seen this film on video shelves for years, but avoided it until I found it for ninety nine cents at a previewed video sale. It was worth that and so much more. I highly recommend this odd film. (* * * * *) out of five stars.