What makes a good Satanic Panic flick? Is it the urbane, dark humor of Rosemary’s Baby (’68), perhaps the outsized biblical insanity of The Omen (’76), or the insidious paranoia that infuses Race with the Devil (’75)? The answer for me is all of the above, and what a treat it is to come across another that brings something a little different - The Brotherhood of Satan (’71) offers a sense of quiet displacement before unleashing a torrent of blustery brimstone and hellfire.
Released by Columbia Pictures in early August, The Brotherhood of Satan even received some decent notices; Roger Greenspun of The New York Times proclaimed that the film “displays bold, direct, relatively uncomplicated acceptance of its supernature”, which is definitely one of its strengths – the evil is ingrained in the small town structure and those within are resigned to its nature. Hey, it was the ‘70s! Were you really expecting upbeat?
The film opens on footage of a toy tank interspersed with a real one that happens to be crushing a car filled with screaming family members; the boy of the family walks away from the wreck (toy tank in hand) and joins a group of kids on a hill. Post credits, we meet Ben (Charles Bateman – Cannon), girlfriend Nicky (Ahna Capri – Enter the Dragon), and Ben’s daughter K.T. (Geri Reischl – I Dismember Mama); while driving they come across the flattened vehicle and head into the nearest town, Hillsboro, where they are swarmed by the sheriff (L.Q. Jones – The Beast Within) and several rabid townsfolk before they hightail it out of town. Except on their way out, they almost hit a little girl in the middle of the road and are forced back to the town for repairs. Makes no never mind anyway; according to the sheriff, no one has been able to leave the town for days, and several families have turned up dead with the children missing from the equation.
Perhaps Doc Duncan (Strother Martin – Slap Shot) could help explain all the activity, if he wasn’t busy leading a coven of elderly Satanists planning to transfer their souls into the missing kids for an extension on mortality. That’s one thing my grand pappy used to say about Satanists; evil always skips a generation, except in politics.
That’s not a big plot spoiler about Strother Martin’s role by the way; it’s on all iterations of box art and in every review of The Brotherhood of Satan, and frankly, it’s a hell of a selling point. Besides, if you’re armed with that info going in, it makes it pretty fun to watch the rest of the cast scratch their heads and wonder where Doc takes off to in moments of crisis. (He’s the Clark Kent of cultists, I guess.)
As for those moments, they’re almost breathtaking in their placement. The opening tank scene is fascinating and a little unnerving in its immediacy; later on, two parents are literally scared to death by a blood splattered doll sitting in the middle of their living room; a man is beheaded by a decidedly un-white knight in shining armor. Aside from the visceral impact of the tank, these scenes are bathed in a matter-of-fact stillness that amps their eeriness; there are no jump cues in the score to push the viewer to feel, nor is the film particularly graphic (the beheading occurs in the shadows on the side of a barn) and has no need for it – plus, a ‘70s PG always stretches out much further for your dollar.
No, director Bernard McEveety (Napoleon and Samantha), cinematographer Monroe P. Askins (Blood of Dracula), along with co-writers L.Q. and William Welch (Land of the Giants) choose to film The Brotherhood of Satan as an unnerving dream just out of reach of lucidity (in breathtaking anamorphic widescreen with primary colors that suggest a hyper-reality); scenes that would naturally end instead extend, creating distrust in the senses and an ever so slight shift in balance – a restlessness. (Some would call it shitty editing; I call it a choice that works.)
Which isn’t to say that the film doesn’t deliver on the promise of its lurid title – the final act is a smorgasbord of orgiastic bloodletting that sets it firmly in the land of florid devilspeak, blind worship, and elder abuse (yes, they’re the Satanists; but they have to die to be reborn. I’m just trying to be sympathetic – I certainly don’t need the karmic hassle down the road when it’s my turn to sport the Pampers). What the film doesn’t have is a dramatic buildup – there’s no traction – towards its dance with the devil, but again, that’s part of the appeal; it runs on its own internal, ethereal clock with a disregard for structure and payoff (although once again silence punctuates the ending for an eerie touch).
Our assumed leads, unfortunately, really don’t register; Bateman, broad of shoulder and blank of expression, comes off as weak willed and Capri is stunning with little to do. All the personality is locked up elsewhere; Jones, in addition to co-writing and producing (not to mention authoring a novelization in 1980), brings some needed weight to the sheriff, although it is strange to view him with a blonde broomed mane and not the grizzled gray appearance in every movie made from the ‘80s on.
As for Martin, this is quite the different role. His Doc is more in line with his usual persona; a smile, eyes darting over spectacles, head atilt, voice a raspy croon. In his cult leader persona however, his voice is boomy and even, with piercing, authoritative eyes – and boy, does he bring it all to the fiery climax. If it was half as much fun to film as it is to watch, he must have had the time of his life.
As far as Satan goes, whether you buy into this stuff or not depends on your own beliefs; it’s no different than being terrified of spiders, sharks, or nightmares. But with The Brotherhood of Satan, the moments away from the coven, in the eerie calm, hold the most power - which takes nothing away from the fact that I will definitely be cosplaying Martin in a red velvet cape this Halloween.
The Brotherhood of Satan is available on Blu-ray as part of a double feature with Mr. Sardonicus from Mill Creek Entertainment.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE UNSEEN (1980)