Way back in 1895, powwower John Blymire and a young man named John Curry, murdered a man who they believed had hexed John and was a servant of Satan. The infamous killing became known as the “Hex Murder”. The bizarre crime was eventually adapted into a surprisingly little known film, Apprentice to Murder, which has just been restored and re-released by Arrow Video…
…I say it’s surprising that this isn’t a more well-known film, because it stars a trio of genuine stars in Chad Lowe as our confused protagonist, Billy, Mia Sara as his aggressive love interest, Alice, and the impeccable Donald Sutherland as John, the old “healer” who believes he has to cleanse the earth of satanic stains. Directed by Ralph L. Thomas and written by Wesley Moore and Allan Scott (Don’t Look Now), Apprentice to Murder is a simplistic tale taking place in 1927 Pennsylvania and involving Billy, a young artist with dreams of escaping his abusive household, preferably with his charming co-worker, Alice. But what starts as a budding romance turns to devastating terror for Alice when Billy becomes wrapped up with John, a practitioner of healing magic (powwow), who believes he has been hexed by someone and must seek out a way to end the hex. Whether or not John is genuinely cursed or just plain delusional is another story.
Shot in the peaceful Norway countryside and drenched in a dull, dreary grey, Apprentice to Murder is a simple film about simple people living in a simple time, where Alice is thrilled over a new typewriter (which she uses to type out a flirtatious message for Billy, one that he can’t read), and Billy believes John is some sort of mystical healer because he calms down an angry dog (probably with a treat in his pocket). It was a time when atheistic cynicism and know-it-all-ism hadn’t entirely set in, and many were looking for something, anything, to give their lives more meaning. In many senses, it was a period ripe for spiritual manipulation.
Enter Billy, a day-dreaming artist trapped in an abusive household with an alcoholic father. Uneducated and unable to read, Billy is a naïve guy that practically oozes innocence. So, when he decides to pay John a visit after witnessing his dog trick, he might as well be a bright-eyed ball of clay, ready to be molded and shaped however John wishes. You see, John is searching for his own meaning in life, some sort of vindication for his work, and he offers Billy a cure for his father’s alcoholism, one which makes him sick every time he drinks, and what do you know, he stops drinking! At this point, Billy begins to see John as a miracle worker, and no one, not even his new love, Alice, can convince him otherwise. “The Lord loves artists, Billy”, says John, and for Billy, those words are like being touched by God him/herself.
Apprentice to Murder is, on the surface, a somewhat dull film that takes a hell of a long time to get going. First timers may even get the sense that it’s a made for TV movie, at least until Sara’s brief nude scene. Thomas’ film is purely a psychological drama in which both the audience and Billy are left unsure, all the way up until the very end, whether or not John is a loon, or is truly the target of a Satanic hex. Curious but rare moments like walls shattering and a man breathing fire from his lips could be real, or they could be a figment of both John and Billy’s heightened imaginations. The film doesn’t care to tell us, instead urging the viewer to make up their own mind.
The fascinating part here isn’t the supposed curse on John, but his relationship with Billy, and how that intervenes with the life Alice and Billy want to build together. It’s like Frailty, but without the violence. John is destroying Billy’s life, intentionally or not, and Billy is too far under his spell to realize it. Sutherland is electric as always, and what the film lacks in genuine suspense and terror, it makes up for with performances that feel genuine and human and sizzle with chemistry between the cast.
Apprentice to Murder is a unique take on the Satanism genre, especially considering that in the 80s, horror had moved from films like The Devil Rides Out and Rosemary’s Baby to features like Night of the Demons and Demon Wind (yes, I’m using an opportunity to shout out my beloved devil’s treat). In a time where satanic films were all about monsters, murder and mayhem, here comes Apprentice to Murder, trotting out with its subtle, melodramatic script and Sutherland spending ninety minutes shouting like a madman.
This anti-climactic drama with a pinch of horror moves like molasses and hardly leaves first degree burns as a slow burn. Still, it’s unique to the satanic sub-genre of horror with an offering of rich, disturbed characters that make for a fascinating study of psychological manipulation.
As for the special features on this disc, there isn’t much of interest, even for hardcore fans of the film. "Original Sin" is an interesting retrospective from author Kat Ellinger on satanic horror and may introduce viewers to a few new hellish delights, but is lacking in discussion on Apprentice to Murder itself. Same goes for interviews with the film’s cinematographer, Kelvin Pike and makeup supervisor Robin Grantham, both of whom talk a lot about working in Norway and other facets, with little eye-opening discussion on the actual film. Critic Bryan Reesman’s feature commentary, however, is a lively, informative divulgence of insight that should be of interest to any fans wanting to dig more into the psychology of the flick. Reesman’s passion for the film is easily the most enjoyable feature on this disc.
Apprentice to Murder is available now from Arrow Video.
Full Blu-ray Specs:
Brand new 2K restoration of the film from the original 35mm interpositive
High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
Original lossless mono soundtrack
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
New audio commentary by author and critic Bryan Reesman
New video interview on religious horror cinema with Kat Ellinger, author and editor-in-chief of Diabolique Magazine
New video interview with cinematographer Kelvin Pike
New video interview with makeup supervisor Robin Grantham
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Haunt Love
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Paul Corupe
By Matt Konopka