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This horrific dramatization of the Guyana tragedy traces the steps of Reverend Jim Jones, a highly charismatic, but profoundly paranoid clergyman, who after years of evangelism and good deeds, begins his own church in the mid-western United States. When Jim Jones becomes increasingly obsessed with the belief that the CIA is "a wicked enemy" who is out to get him, he emigrates with his congregation to Guyana, where he plans to create a utopia. But Jim Jones' utopia consists of a society where he demands his followers turn their minds, bodies and possessions over to him, one that is rife with orgies, physical violence, mental torture, and sexual abuse of children and adults. Ultimately, Jim Jones' paranoia reaches a fevered pitch that culminates in him taking savage action against his own congregation. Written by
VCI Home Video
Reverend James Johnson (Stuart Whitman) leads his church worshipers into the jungles of Guyana in South America where his cult begins to reach the views he had in plan. The only problem is politician Congressman Leo Ryan (Gene Berry) who sees something wrong with this group but before anything can be done tragedy strikes.
GUYANA: CULT OF THE DAMNED was the first attempt at telling the tragic story of Jim Jones and his church members, which led to a mass suicide in Jonestowan. This film comes from director Rene Cardona Jr. who also had his hand involved in other "true story" films like SURVIVE and THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE. This film here was released in America in a cut version, which added narration but I viewed the uncut version that clocked in at 115-minutes. I can't comment on the American version but I will say that this here appears to be a little bit better. Having read reviews of both, it's clear this film is hated by most and many violently attack it for exploiting the real people by trying to make a quick buck.
I understand where people would see this as exploitation but the film itself really isn't as bad as many make it out to be and not nearly as graphic as its reputation. In fact, for a film that has the reputation of being an exploitation movie, I'd say this is incredibly tame. Yes, there are scenes of torture but none of them are graphic and in fact they're less graphic than something you'd see in a PG-13 movie of today. The mass suicide at the end really just shows people getting shot or falling to the ground. Again, nothing too graphic. The attacks about the vile nature of the movie isn't from anything we see on the screen but I think it comes from people simply protesting that a "cheap" movie was made about such a tragic event.
As for the film itself, I'd be lying if I called it good. There's no question that the entire film has a very rushed feel to it. There's also no question that Cardona just wanted to get anything on the screen no matter if it was the truth, a lie or somewhere in between. The story structure is what really kills the movie because the first time we see Jones (named Johnson here) he's already a raving maniac so it's hard to believe that, by looking at him, anyone would follow him into a jungle. Had the film showed whatever character he had to talk people into following him then I think it would have paid off a lot better instead of having him be a maniac throughout. The film, in its uncut form, also runs a bit too long with too many repeat scenes of Jones just rambling.
There are some good moments in the film that are often overlooked and this includes the final twenty-five or so minutes once the Congressman arrives on the scene with the media. The final moments of the story are quite entertaining, although many of the death scenes are handled so poorly that it was hard to get any real impact from them. Another good thing was the performance of Whitman. I thought he was actually quite believable in the role and it's too bad he didn't get to play this character with a better screenplay. Berry was also good in his supporting role and there's never a bad time when you get to watch Joseph Cotten and John Ireland.
GUYANA: CULT OF THE DAMNED has been overshadowed by other, more graphic films from the director as well as a made-for-TV movie that followed. Still, on its own terms, the movie isn't nearly as awful as its made out to be. Who knows. Had the director actually taken his time with the material and had a better screenplay, it had the elements for something better.
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