GUYANA: CULT OF THE DAMNED: When Sensationalism Gets It Right

Of all the twisted cults to rise out of the confused 1970’s, Jim Jones and his People’s Temple were second only to Charles Manson’s family in terms of skin-crawling creepiness. The mass suicide at Jonestown remains one of the most haunting images of mass murder ever to burn its way into the collective consciousness. As a result, it became a media-assisted source of obsession. Several books about Jones were rushed into print and tons of t.v. and print coverage hit the media outlets. There was even a tape of Jones’ final rant during the suicides that made the rounds.

This dark tale also received the docudrama treatment. The t.v. version, Jim Jones: The Guyana Tragedy, was a strong, haunting piece of work made in a respectful style. However, it was beat to the punch by Guyana: Cult Of The Damned – an exploitation quickie from Rene Cardona, the same man who made Survive! about the Andes plane crash survivors. Cardona had the cameras rolling within four months of the tragedy and produced a piece of work that, while frequently sleazy in tone, is undeniably compelling and surprisingly close to the facts.

Using news reports and a few tapes of Jones’ sermons (including his final one), Cardona and his crew piece together the last two years of the People’s Temple. In exploitation-expose style, the names have been changed. Guyana: Cult Of The Damned begins in 1977 with ‘Jim Johnson’ (a frazzled, surly Stuart Whitman) whisking his followers away from San Francisco to a 27,000 acre compound in Guyana. He’s already over the edge – paranoid, sadistic and constantly popping pills as he puts his followers through mass suicide rehearsals.

After receiving countless complaints from the family members of several Temple members, Congressman Leo O’Brian (Gene Barry) ventures to Guyana with reporters to bring back whoever wishes to return. His appearance – and the threat of having the horrors of Johnsontown revealed to rest of the world – sparks a series of events that culminate in tragedy for all, culminating in a grim reenactment of the infamous mass suicide.

Even at its original two-hour running time, Guyana: Cult Of The Damned creates a morbidly fascinating atmosphere. Cardona shows little taste or sensitivity in his handling of the material – the film opens with a bloody gunshot suicide and one scene lingers on the torture of three young boys being ‘punished’ for stealing – but he attacks his material with a sense of gusto that creates a breathless, ‘you are there’ feel. His efforts are aided by lush photography, impressive production values (lots of crowd scenes) and a effectively over-the-top score co-composed by veteran pop arranger Jimmie Haskell that adds the right melodramatic stings at all the key moments.

Best of all, the film boasts a powerhouse cast by exploitation film standards. The ensemble cast is packed with familiar faces of all kinds – Bradford Dillman is the faithful camp doctor, Yvonne DeCarlo is Johnson’s surly p.r. officer and John Ireland and Joseph Cotten are appropriately sleazy in a white-collar style as Johnson’s legal counsel. Elsewhere, Gene Barry adds a touch of class as O’Brien: he gets the richest characterization as the crusading congressman and his doomed heroism is moving in a way you wouldn’t expect from this kind of film.

However, the best performance comes from Whitman in the crucial role of Johnson. Whitman had become an exploitation regular by this time and usually provided a solid presence in such fare… but he is truly on fire in this one. Several scenes are devoted to him haranguing his congregation at length and he delivers each brimstone-drenched tirade with the fervor of an actor thrilled to have some interesting material. By the time the film reaches the mass suicide, he has turned Johnson into a hateful, demonic force of self-obsessed evil whose scariness transcends the film’s cash-in origins.

To sum up, Guyana: Cult Of The Damned is unlikely to ever inspire critical respect but it gets the job done with ruthless efficiency.  You won’t be able to tear your eyes away.

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