Apprentice to Murder
directed by Ralph L. Thomas
starring Donald Sutherland, Chad Lowe, Mia Sara
Apprentice to Murder is not a film noir nor is it a Lifetime network movie as the jejune title might indicate. It is instead a hidden gem of a film blending elements of folk horror with a fairly unsentimental coming of age story. Films that fall outside of genre conventions often fail to capture an audience and clearly the post-Roger Corman New World Pictures had no idea how to market this film. They doubled down on the scant horror aspects and cut an aggressively misleading trailer combined with garish Exorcist rip-off VHS art damned the film to be a disappointment to the few that actually watched.
Loosely based on the true story of the 1928 Nelson Rehmeyer “Hex Hollow” murder case in York, Pennsylvania, Apprentice to Murder is a slow burn of a film that is often more character study than horror film. Set in Pennsylvania Dutch country, a land marked by hard labor and high reliance on religion and superstition, is the perfect place for a genteel youth to be taken in by a charismatic father figure of dubious repute. Billy Kelly (Chad Lowe, Pretty Little Liars) is a 16 year old artist looking for his place in the world and realizing it isn’t among the farms and tannery where he lives. After suffering a drunken beating from his father Billy strikes up a friendship with the new girl in town Alice (Mia Sara, Legend) who takes him to meet powwow medicine doctor John Reese, played with glorious abandon by Donald Sutherland (Klute). Powwow medicine is basically an American adaptation of Wicca and the practitioners are armed with their grimoire Long Lost Friend. While Billy and Alice’s love blooms he is also becoming increasingly devoted to his mentor, John Reese. Reese not only teaches Billy how to read and write, but opens his eyes to poetry and the ways of powwow medicine which is a mix of Christianity and folk medicine including herbs, hex signs, and incantations. Billy tries to balance his desire to move to the city with Alice with working for his mentor. His naive faith in Reese and the superstitions of his people ultimately lead to tragedy. The romance angle doesn’t become overly saccharine or melodramatic. There is a borderline sweet/creepy runner where Billy leaves drawings he’s done of Alice in her room while she sleeps. It stays on the right side of creepy as it is shown that she frames and hangs the drawings. Billy’s relationship with Reese and his indoctrination into powwow medicine is far more interesting and is what actually drives the plot. Haunting the entire film is the presence of a mysterious man, Lars Hoeglin. Is Hoeglin a malevolent force or simply a recluse? Is Reese a holy man, a manipulative huckster, or insane? The veracity of the various magics, including the supernatural showdown with Hoeglin, ultimately turn out to be purposely ambiguous as Billy’s reality unravels.
For a basically forgotten film Arrow Video has given in a loving release that will no doubt be treasured by the film’s fans and hopefully find it some new admirers. In addition to the lovely presentation of R. L Thomas’ film there are a surprising number of extra content included as well.
Film and music critic Bryan Reesman delivers an engaging audio commentary that balances the delivery of information and analysis while taking full advantage of the film on screen to single out specific shots or scenes for discussion. He does a great job of breaking down the themes and production of the film, going into the history of the Pennsylvania Dutch region, the book Pow-Wows; or, Long Lost Friend by John George Hohman, and the actual murder case the film was inspired by.
Original Sin: Religion in Horror Cinema is an on camera interview piece with Diabolique editor Kat Ellinger discussing the history of religion in horror films. This studiously researched piece actually starts long before film with the works of Charles Brockden Brown, America’s first novelist who laced his work with Colonial culture entwined with the European gothic to create the American Gothic novel and was an obvious influence on Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. She then works through the evolving portrayal of Christian and cult religious leaders in films like Night of the Hunter (1955), Witchfinder General (1968), personal fave Eyes of Fire (1983).
Other extras include “Colour Me Kelvin”, an interview with cinematographer Kelvin Pike who recalls his work on Apprentice to Murder and the challenges of working in Norway, and “Grantham to Bergen”, an interview with make-up artist Robin Grantham. The film’ theatrical trailer is also included to round out this surprisingly solid release