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Guyana-Cult of the Damned

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"Guyana-Cult of the Damned" has crawled out from under a rock and into local theaters, and will do nicely as this week's example of the depths to which people will plunge in search of a dollar. The movie is a gruesome version of the Jonestown massacre of 1978, so badly written and directed it illustrates a simple rule of movie exhibition: If a film is nauseating and reprehensible enough in the first place, it doesn't matter how badly it's made - people will go anyway.

The film was produced, directed and co-written by one René Cardona, whose credits in the movie's press release portray him as a ghoulish retailer of human misery. He is the producer of "Survival," about the cannibalism of the Andes survivors, and of "The Bermuda Triangle," and now of the disquieting story of the Guyana massacre. "At least 15 film producers went after the story," the release says, "but Cardona got there first."

Good old Cardona. He got there first with a film that mixes fact, fiction and speculation with complete indifference, and which contains an amazing absence of any real curiosity about the bizarre deaths in Jonestown. It presents them as a horror story, but it doesn't really probe for reasons or motivations.

"This story is true," we're promised at the outset. "Only the names have been changed." The story may be true, but the research sure isn't original; the screenplay seems to have been written at typing speed and based on wire service stories of the massacre. The movie's held together with a voice-over narration (handy if you're planning to dub into several languages), and the characters are almost always seen from the outside: We get no scenes attempting to probe the personalities of the cult members.

Instead, there are lots of sermons in which Stuart Whitman, as "Rev. James Johnson," seems to be trying to cross Hitler with Elmer Gantry, as he exhorts his cult members to follow him from San Francisco to Guyana - and to permit his dictatorship there. Whitman plays the cult leader as so rabid and fanatic - such a complete bad guy - that it's difficult to believe anyone would have followed him anywhere. Surely the real Jim Jones must have been somewhat more charismatic?

The scenes in Guyana show crowds of extras herded here and there in the jungle camp and forced to listen to more fanatic sermons. For variety, we get scenes showing cult members being publicly humiliated and tortured; one scene involves electric shocks to the genitals of a young boy. Meanwhile, the narrator introduces such supporting characters as Whitman's mistress (Jennifer Ashley), public relations expert (Yvonne De Carlo) and lawyer (Joseph Cotten). They all appear in a few scenes, look thoroughly ill at ease and embarrassed, and are dispensed with.

During all the garbage that precedes it, we're waiting uncomfortably for the film's climax, the massacre with the cyanide in the soft drink. The movie spares no details. The cult members line up and drink their poison or have it forced down their throats, and then they stagger around, clutch their stomachs, and scream in pain. Later, the film shows actual photographs of the real victims, while we are solemnly reminded that "those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it." So remember: Don't drink cyanide.

All of this is disgusting, and all of it is sad. Why did a reputable studio (Universal) pick up this vile garbage for national release, and why is it showing in such theaters as the Plitt flagship, the Chicago? Because there is money to be made from it, I suppose. The movie brings absolutely no insights to Guyana. It exploits human suffering for profit. It is a geek show. Universal and its exhibitors should be ashamed.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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Film Credits

Guyana-Cult of the Damned movie poster

Guyana-Cult of the Damned (1980)


Stuart Whitman as Rev Johnson

Gene Barry as Rep. O'Brien

John Ireland as Dave Cole

Bradford Dillman as Dr. Shaw

Jennifer Ashley as Anna Kazan

Yvonne De Carlo as Susan Ames

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