Apprentice to Murder (1988) Poster

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Strange, but Based on Fact
skallisjr24 April 2005
This film was based loosely on a bizarre murder investigation and subsequent trial in Pennsylvania. At the time, in the 1920s, backwoods Pennsylvania had folk-medicine healers called Pow-Wows, and the film involves one. These healers relied on a book, "Long Lost Friend," written by a George Hohmann, that was full of prayers and folk remedies based on a form of sympathetic magic, that were supposed to cure ailments and the like.

The Sutherland character is a Pow-Wow, and a youngster, played by Lucas Haas, becomes his apprentice. A series of bad events takes place in the community, and the Pow-Wow suspects a neighboring farmer, culminating in the murder.

Significant Spoiler: The film is ambivalent on the nature of the Pow-Wow's power, and leads the viewer in one direction, and then suddenly reverses itself. This weakness could have been sidestepped easily. It would have been a better film if it had.
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Pow-Wow … Not Too "Wow-Awesome"
Coventry23 August 2010
This is quite weird… "Apprentice to Murder" combines three major elements that I always deliberately seek for in horror/cult movies, but rarely ever find together. And yet, in spite of featuring this rather unique potpourri, the film sadly left me Siberian cold. For starters (1) the film is obscure and incredibly hard to find. Usually there's a good reason for this, but personally I still hope to stumble upon some genuine undiscovered gems from time to time. Then (2) the story is based, or at least loosely inspired, by true events. More than often, facts are far more astounding than fiction could ever be. And finally but foremost (3), "Apprentice to Murder" takes place in the 1920's and I personally think this is the most suitable time to narrate a tale of the macabre. The ambiance that comes with this decade is like automatically melancholic and downbeat. The people were poor, vulnerable to all sort of illnesses and petrified of God. Why there aren't any more horror movies timed in the 1920's is completely beyond me.

"Apprentice to Murder" has all this, except that… well … the story, inspired by true events as they supposedly took place in Pennsylvania in 1927, honestly isn't worth telling. It's fairly dull and commonplace. Definitely not something to consider as thought-provoking or recognize as one of the darkest pages in recent history. Donald Sutherland, who couldn't look less interested in starring in this film, depicts a so- called Powwow Doctor practicing in a rural Pennsylvanian county, a few days of traveling away from Philadelphia. After his "cures" the father of a young illiterate adolescent with a drawing talent, he takes the boy under his wing as an apprentice. Dr. Reese teaches Billy to read and write and also gradually becomes convinced that he can also become a blessed healer, much against the will of Billy's girlfriend Alice. But Dr. Reese and especially his methods are unorthodox and often abased as witchery by the superstitious and deeply religious communion. When some of his cases don't end well, Billy is dragged along in a downwards spiral of accusations, curses and punishments.

Director R.L. Thomas obviously treasured the best of intentions, but sadly doesn't manage to make full use of the contemporary folklore mysticism and small-town paranoia. For way too long, the screenplay exclusively focuses on the bonding sessions between the Dr. and his young acolyte. I swear, the undertones even get homosexual at certain moments, whereas the really interesting aspects of the story remain untouched. The actually disturbing ordeal our Powwow has to face (a creepy local hermit who may or not be the Devil himself) is incomprehensibly pushed to the background, like it's some kind of insignificant sub plot. The filming locations and set pieces are terrific, but apparently R.L Thomas and his crew had to travel to the beautiful region of Hordaland in Norway in order to recreate the rural Pennsylvania of 1927. "Apprentice to Murder" definitely remains a curious 80's feature, well worth checking out if you cherish cheap but ambitious cult cinema, but overall it's a missed opportunity.
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Almost a Folk Magic Docu-Drama
catherine yronwode22 September 2007
I love this movie and have recommended it to my students in folk-magic because it is closely based on a true story of murder, mysticism, and (possible) madness concerning a Pennsylvania Dutch Pow Wow doctor in the mid-1920s. Donald Sutherland is superb as John Reese, the highly eccentric conjure and herbalist. Chad Lowe is quite good as his young apprentice. The location shots, filmed in Norway, are spectacular -- not Pennsylvania Dutch country, exactly, but a wonderful rural landscape, with great old 19th century buildings. There is also a very good look at contemporaneous hoodoo practices, as the Pow Wow doctor seeks an outside consultation to cure his ills. If you're a prop and set decoration fan and knowledgeable about magic, look for the couple of Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs (inexplicably called "hexagrams" -- the movie's one false step) that contain Norse bind-runes thrown in on them -- obviously that was the Norwegian prop-maker's little in-joke. This is a great little underrated classic, and the perfect vehicle for Donald Sutherland.
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Minor item.
gridoon13 June 2000
If you're planning to watch this simply because you're a Donald Sutherland fan, don't bother. He isn't likely to impress you with his mediocre performance here. As the for the film itself, it's watchable but very minor. It manages to remain reasonably interesting most of the way, but it doesn't have many surprises to offer and it MOVES LIKE MOLASSES!
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pascal-francaix1 February 2007
A very fine movie, totally underrated. Despite a bad box for the DVD edition, this is NOT a "horror flick", but a greatly interesting and subtle approach of a strange and complex relationship between an influenced young man (Lowe) and a disturbed pow-wow-preacher, tortured by his secret fears -- and desires... Homosexual implications, wonderful camera work, and great musical score by Charles Gross. There is a magic in this movie, which places it somewhere between "The Night of the hunter" and "The Reflecting skin". Felicitations to R.L. Thomas. Oh !... and Donald Sutherland is memorable !... His performance is suave, well balanced, and constantly precise.
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Filmed in Bergen, Norway
tjff7730 August 2006
Just want to ad that much of the movie is filmed at the west coast of Norway and in the city Bergen.

I probably liked the movie because of that... The buildings and landscape fits the movie well. Based on how religious some people were in some areas at the west coast (maybe still are), and how strong some believe in the super-natural, the story gets a good framing from the Norwegian nature.

Some of the landscapes are probably gone to day, farming areas are becoming suburbs, and the cities are growing. But you may still find some buildings, and the scenes from the center of Bergen are almost identical to day.
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"Life don't come free".
mylimbo1 June 2013
An interestingly odd, if not too successful little folktale curio set in Pennsylvania (although it was shot in Norway) in the 1920s as a teenage boy Billy comes under the influence of a backwoods faith healer Dr. Reese who begins to educate him as he becomes drawn to his mystical charms. But Billy finds himself dragged into strange events which end in terrifying results as they believe the local hermit has the motive and power to cause the devastating blight affecting the small village.

Sometimes being unique and incredibly offbeat just doesn't cut it, if it doesn't entirely deliver the goods. I wanted to like "Apprentice to Murder" a lot more than I did, but I felt like it came up short by not completely coming to life with its dangerous predicament. It never really balances its sensationalised mystic concepts, tending to rely on its character relationships (especially the complicated connection between the boy and the faith healer), humdrum dramatic weight and slow- winding story build-up (some episodic filler) where it can have its flat spells. The most fascinating façade I thought was that of the hermit, which comes across very secondary to everything else, but is the main piece that holds everything together. Still its premise is innovative with a lyrical script that for most part engages with its busy themes.

It's low-key in its approach, which is not a problem but it never really delves into the strange happenings and vivid special effects that seem to torture the faith healer. We get the usual supernatural occurrences, that in the end all of this magic might just be that of a disillusion. But this is supposedly inspired by true events involving a pow-pow preacher and his faith in George Hohmann's "Long Lost Friend" that eventually led to murder. The performances stand up very well with Chad Lowe's responsible turn holding his own alongside a charismatically believable Donald Sutherland as the unorthodox faith healer. He does command the screen in a subtle manner emitting somewhat a creepy undertone. The gorgeous Mia Sara doesn't get all that much to do and Eddie Jones also shows up.

Director R. L Thomas does a sensational job presenting strikingly authentic period details, but also the moody score along with the elegant cinematography are instrumental in crafting enticingly symbolic imagery and an effective atmosphere of a god fearing time engulfing rural communities.
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Rather lame folktale ........
merklekranz29 December 2012
Donald Sutherland plays a pseudo priest / medicine man in what is supposed to be Pennsylvania Dutch Country, but is actually Norway. Unfortunately this based on fact Devil hunt, doesn't have enough of a story to maintain interest for 97 minutes, and a romantic subplot comes across as nothing but an afterthought. The real problem with "Apprentice to Murder" however, is the fatal flaw of not playing fair with it's audience. What is presented as fact, is suddenly turned upside down, as relates to the powers of a suspected "Devil". If a movie is going to basically trick people for the sake of sensationalism, it better present the trick in a way that leaves room for actually being able to believe the outcome. - MERK
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