Until I settled down to watch it last night, I didn’t know much about ‘The Brotherhood of Satan’ other than it was co-written and produced by Peckinpah alumnus L.Q. Jones, co-starred fellow Peckinpah alumnus Strother Martin, and had what a friend of mine described as “a bit of a crazy ending”. Turns out my friend is a master of understatement.
The film opens with a toy tank clacking away on a hillside while the real thing crushes a station wagon. Then a young boy scoops up the tank (its life-size counterpart seems to have disappeared) and goes running off. We cut to a noisy children’s party hosted by Ben (Charles Bateman) and Nicki (Ahna Capri) in honour of Ben’s daughter from a previous marriage, the eight-year old K.T. (Geri Reischl). They then set off to drive across country to visit K.T.’s grandmother, stopping off en route so that Ben and Nicki can make out at the riverside while K.T. wanders about on her on. It’s not the last lousy parenting decision they’ll make.
Parenthetically, extraneous details such as Ben and Nicki not being married and K.T.’s mother having died a few years ago are made much of early on in the film, as if some vital importance will hinge upon them, but are never mentioned again.
Getting lost en route to Grandma’s house (which I can only assume is a metaphorical fairy-tale reference, because for fuck’s sake Ben’s a grown man and you’d think he’d remember where his mother lives), our luckless protagonists come across a small town. They pass the mangled wreckage of the station wagon from the credit sequence and Ben decides to report it at the Sheriff’s office. The Sheriff (Jones) immediately hauls a gun and has him over the hood of his car (although I might want to rephrase that sentence); an angry mob of townsfolk gather and an obviously bereaved parent comes charging through the crowd hefting an axe and screaming, “You took her from me!” Ben makes his only wise decision in the entire film, wrests free of the Sheriff, jumps in the car and floors it.
An accident just outside of town, however, leaves them stranded. The accident is hilarious. The car goes off the road, drops down into a culvert and slams into a tree. Instead of front end being stoved inwards, trapping the hood release mechanism, and the hood buckling and rising at its opposite end (ie. closer to the windscreen), the front end remains intact, the hood flies open from the front and a large spring boings out to symbolize the damage done to the engine block. Okay, I’m no mechanic, but where the fuck is there a spring in an engine block?
Now, having deconstructed the accident, let’s do the same for the logicality of Ben’s decision. You are off-roaded near a small town populated by an edgy Sheriff and an angry mob. You have your partner and a young child with you. Do you: (a) stay where you are, wait for the first passing vehicle and hitch a lift; (b) start walking away from the town and flag down the first passing vehicle; or (c) walk back into town, confident in the delusion that someone will help you?
Hands up if you said (a). Hands up if you said (b). Hands up if you said anything in the name of all that’s holy except (c). Good; that’s all of us, then.
Except Ben. He goes for (c), ignoring Nicki’s protestations and dragging K.T. along. The first house they come to, the adult occupants are dead – having been slaughtered in gruesome and supernatural stylee in an earlier scene – and the children taken. Ben and co. soon find themselves holed up with their pistol hauling buddy from earlier, Sheriff L.Q., along with Deputy Tobey (Alvy Moore), retired medic Doc Duncan (Martin), and the local priest (Charles Robinson). Ben and Nicki soon discover that several families have been murdered: all had children; said children are now missing.
‘The Brotherhood of Satan’ doesn’t generate much tension re: the children’s disappearance. At roughly the halfway mark, it’s revealed that they’ve been bewitched by a coven of scary old people …
… who intend to use them as receptacles for their souls so they can “live another lifetime in the Brotherhood of Satan”. The Sheriff, quick as his is at pulling his pistol, isn’t much of a deductive talent and our beleaguered heroes spend much of the movie sitting around talking over each other (huge and unnecessary amounts of exposition are noisily delivered in this manner) while the priest finally figures it out by looking at the pictures in a book on witchcraft.
Parenthetically, why do movie characters always find the answer in arcane books that have no prose content but page after page of pictures? At what point in their lives prior the current scenario do they say to themselves, “Hmmmm, this weird old book containing nothing but woodcuts of demons doing unspeakable things looks like it might be a fun bedtime read. I think I’ll buy it”?
‘The Brotherhood of Satan’ is an odd little movie. Given that L.Q. Jones later wrote, produced and directed the magnificently unnerving post-apocalypse fable ‘A Boy and His Dog’, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he’d lend his talents to the horror genre. Beyond co-writing and producing ‘The Brotherhood of Satan’, he apparently went on to adapt it as a novel. His obvious passion for the material is strangely at odds with his nothing role as the Sheriff.
If we credit the film’s conception to Jones, there are enough plus points – the use of the children’s toys against their parents (either suggested or anthropomorphosized; never as crassly done as in, say, ‘Child’s Play’); the ‘Village of the Damned’-like depiction of the children themselves; the dual role that one of the characters plays – to counterbalance the frequent contrivances. Examining the film’s execution (dir. Bernard McEveety), the flaws start floating to the surface.
Much of the staging is static, from the coven’s ritual (although the final scene, played out in front of a huge ankh cross, symbolic of immortality, is terrific) to the protagonists standing around in the Sheriff’s office for long periods. Compositions are often awkward and needlessly cluttered, although a feverish dream sequence hits the required note of what-the-fuckery. The performances are all over the place, with Bateman and Capri so wooden that all they’re lacking is a coat of varnish. More could have been done to create atmosphere, rather than just crank up the smoke machine every time there’s a nocturnal scene. The aforementioned accident scene is incredibly badly effected.
‘The Brotherhood of Satan’, while a perfectly cynical movie to kick off Summer of Satan with, never quite moves and grooves as nastily as it could have. Jones and Martin were definitely more dangerous when they hung out with Bloody Sam.