Arrow Video: Apprentice to Murder (1988) - Reviewed

While from the outset R.L. Thomas’ recently unearthed “powwow” thriller looks like another demonic and occult scare fest, in reality the film itself reveals a different kind of monster entirely.  Grounded in the early 1900s Pennsylvania Dutch Country, Apprentice to Murder is less about the strange goings-on surrounding the mercurial powwow Dr. John Reese (Donald Sutherland in top form) than it is about the infatuation Reese stirs up in his most trusted pupil, Billy Kelly (Chad Lowe). 

Unable to read and constantly attacked by his boorish drunken father, Billy is taken in under Dr. Reese’s wing after agreeing to sneak healing potions into his dad’s dinner to cure him of his alcoholism.  As Billy’s relations with the doctor grow closer over time, the town he lives in is stricken with a plague threatening to kill off the town’s livestock.  Is nature at war with itself or is there something more otherworldly going on in this small town involving what may or may not be ‘spiritual warfare’ between Reese and a strange old man who keeps appearing before Billy. 

Co-starring Mia Sara (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) as Billy’s girlfriend, the only person standing in between his obsession with Dr. Reese, one of the virtues of Apprentice to Murder is that for all of its supernatural imagery we’re never really sure what’s real or isn’t.  Everything is seen from the perspective of Billy who wants to believe in the doctor’s ways with unseen forces of good and evil while also having his doubts.  Much like the eventual South Korean chiller The Wailing, it takes the medicine man mythos seriously with the viewers and main characters uncertain if there are actual spiritual forces locked in battle in the universe, or something more down to Earth.  That the film never tells is among its strongest assets though some viewers will come away frustrated.

In an unusual twist of fate, Apprentice to Murder wound up reuniting Donald Sutherland with Don’t Look Now screenwriter Allan Scott, another horror gem which teased our fears of the unknown with more than a few hints of the supernatural peppered throughout.  For Sutherland it’s familiar territory but he plays the role straight even when elements of the story lean towards ridiculousness.  Chad Lowe and Mia Sara give decent supporting performances with Lowe making the young lad inquisitive and curious about the world he’s living in.  That said, both actors wind up playing second fiddle to Sutherland who is a force of nature in this film.  Second to The Day of the Locust, this is one of Sutherland’s best performances even as the latter half of the film finds the actor leaning towards hamming things up.

Making great use of location photography is cinematographer Kelvin Pike, who was one a camera operator on three of Stanley Kubrick’s films including 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Shot in 1.85:1 widescreen, Apprentice to Murder presents a decidedly normal looking small-town America with only certain sequences going off the rails with the lighting and visual effects evoking the otherworldly.  The only area that feels somewhat out of touch with the rest of the film is Charles Gross’ Windham Hill sounding piano and strings driven score.  Listening to it conjured up thoughts of watching a George Winston concert or Ken Burns’ The Civil War, which suits the Southern Gothic mood of the film well but also feels at odds with the uncanny elements of the supernatural.

Sadly, Apprentice to Murder was more or less buried by New World Pictures who in the end were probably as perplexed with the tone of the picture as the unsuspecting moviegoer who thought he bought a ticket to a horror film.  Eventually the film found a cult following on home video but otherwise remained difficult to see for years.  Moreover, it’s director who mostly dabbled in television work including The Twilight Zone wound up seeing this and his well-regarded Ticket to Heaven ultimately buried by the studio.  Seen now, it remains an intriguing film which sidesteps the clich├ęs of the medicine man thriller and offers viewers something unusual to ponder well after the end credits have rolled.  Not a home run but not to be ignored or outright dismissed either.

--Andrew Kotwicki