The early 1970s saw several British films being released that have been defined as “folk horror” by fans. These are films like Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man, which incorporated old folk tales and pagan rituals into horror movies. In the 1980s, movies like Children of the Corn moved the setting to rural America but the idea was the same. These films often dealt with isolated communities living in picturesque, yet somehow unsettling rural areas. They are inhabited by deeply religious people who incorporate pagan or satanic rituals into their daily lives. This mix of isolationism and “weird” belief systems make it ripe for horror. Especially when you add in human sacrifices to the mix, which these films often did.
Apprentice to Murder (1988) starring Donald Sutherland directed by Ralph L. Thompson and co-written by Allan Scott (who also wrote Don’t Look Now, which also stars Sutherland) falls into the folk-horror subgenre, though it is pretty light on the horror. It was certainly marketed as a horror film and a thriller, but ultimately it's more of a character study, which is likely one of the reasons it bombed at the box office (the other reason being it is an absolute bore).
It is set in the Pennsylvania Dutch region of New England (though it was actually shot in Norway) in 1920 with Sutherland playing a doctor of Powwow medicine. This area was something of a melting pot, bringing in settlers from all over Europe, with various Christian sects (the Anabaptists, Quakers, Lutherans, etc.) all blending together. Powwow blended Christian ideas with older folk rituals, traditional medicine, and magic. Loosely based on a true story, the film follows Billy Kelly (Chad Lowe, who looks a lot like his famous brother but has none of the charm) as an illiterate teenager living in rural Pennsylvania. When his alcoholic father beats him, he seeks out John Reese (Sutherland), the local Powwow man who he hopes can give him a little faith healing. Reese heals the boy's scarred face and gives him some medicine to put in his father’s food which will make him sick any time he takes a drink.
Reese slowly (oh so slowly, this film moves like cold molasses) takes little Billy under his wing, teaching him to read and taking him out on his faith-healing adventures. At the same time, Billy takes a liking to Alice (Mia Sara), a local girl with big dreams. In the end, Billy must choose between the love of a woman and the love of his kooky, magical father figure. With a title like Apprentice to Murder, I’ll let you guess who he chooses (Hint: it ain’t the one who starred in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).
Billy and Alice make plans to move to Philadelphia and begin a new life together but Reese suddenly gets sick. He’s just sure someone has put a hex on him and the three travel to Philadelphia together. There, Reese consults of a couple of hex experts (hex-perts?) and learns it was Lars Hoeglin (Knut Husebø), the creepy guy we’ve seen skulking around the shadows throughout the film. Once again, I’ll point you to the title of this film to lead you in the direction of where that goes.
The film leaves things open to interpretation. We’re never quite sure whether Reese is a true believer or a con man who sees Billy as an easy mark. We never know whether magic and deviltry are real in this world or all hallucinations in the minds of its inhabitants. In the only scene of violence in this entire “horror” film, there appears to be a sorcerer who breathes fire, but later we find that not to have happened at all.
The tone is stoic and somber throughout, the pacing is glacier. The romance between Billy and Alice fails to ignite a single spark. From the beginning, she is obviously attracted to him, but he either ignores or is blind to her advances. She literally has to throw herself at him, de-robing him in bed before he gets the picture. After that, it's all hearts in his eye sockets, but the actors fail to make any of it believable. Donald Sutherland is the one highlight though he seems to be only one gear past coasting.
At least the scenery is pretty.
Arrow Video presents Apprentice to Murder with a brand new 2K restoration from the original 35mm interpositive. Extras include a new audio commentary by critic Bryan Reesman, interviews with critic Kat Ellinger, cinematographer Kelvin Pike, and makeup supervisor Robin Grantham. Plus, the usual booklet with an essay on the film by Paul Corupe.