Now with a title like that I ask you ladies and gentlemen, how the hell can you go wrong?
The Brotherhood of Satan is a perfect example of that subtle style of camera exposition so well-helmed in the early-to-mid nineteen seventies and re-introduced into the vernacular today by guys today like Ti West and Larry Fessenden. Hold onto your hats while Takashi cranks the ol’ time macheen up and we spiral back into the days of quaaludes, ‘grass’ and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass – IT’S 1971!!!
Brotherhood of Satan breathes. The camera is often stationary, allowing characters to walk in and out of the depth of focus. There’s not a lot of the edit-and-follow that moves modern-day protagonists through film. Not that jump cuts and tracking are bad, it’s just nice to have something to juxtapose them with. And if there is one thing B.O.S. does it is juxtapose baby. Take the opening of the film for instance. We begin with images of a battery operated toy tank whirling and buzzing inter-cut with images of a life-size tank crushing the hell out of an automobile. Over top of the images are the sounds of screaming, leading us to believe there are people inside said automobile even if there is absolutely nothing visually present to support this. The aftermath of the tank leads us to a small boy who is wordlessly implied to be the cause of said nefarious magick. The little boy is joined by several other children and we fade to a dark and ominous title sequence.
Now, while this doesn’t sound like much (and it’s not) within this opening scene we have a microcosm of the logic that pervades B.O.S. In fact, with hardly a line of dialogue within the first ten minutes of the film we are led down a path that, I believe, is supposed to make as little sense to us at first as it is to our three ‘main’ characters: a good-chinned, just-another-fine-American-like-yourself father, a blond bombshell mother and their eight-year old daughter. After a lightning round birthday party, day at the beach and retreat from a thunderous downpour said nuclear family comes across the remains of the tank-tailored auto and panic at the devastation. Unsettled, they drive to the nearest town to find help. What they do not realize (nor do we) is that no one other than themselves have been able to enter or exit the town for the last several days as more and more nuclear families fall prey to a gruesome fate – the town’s sheriff continually finds parents murdered and children missing. Again, none of us know this at first, and what we get is the same disorientating ‘what the fuck?’ charge that the family does as they stop to find the sheriff and get mobbed by dozens of frightened, angry towners.
Again, this early scene serves to build on the motiff of confusion and fear. Maybe I am giving the filmmakers too much credit – the kind of credit that comes with forty years of hindsight – but upon reflection it seems to me that the creators were attempting in a very subtle way to force their audience to run the same track as their characters by utilizing an almost first person narrative style at times. Whether intentional or not the guarded style helps to set the mystery, the elephant in the room no one in the town wants to address except for the local priest. The fact is this – children are disappearing and people are dying mysteriously. Whereas nowadays this would most likely be a fox news pederast/terrorist conspiracy, in 1971 there is only one rational answer (of course) – a coven of Satan worshippers are absconding the tykes in preparation for some heinous ritual that will strike their master’s will like an arrow straight into the heart of the American dream.
Strother Martin, Jr. plays the exhausted and befuddled priest who by day helps the sheriff clean up the bodies and by night leads a geriatric cult of evil-doers in their quest to glorify their dark and unholy master until he honors their requests and switches their bodies with that of the kiddies. The unwitting family of three is lost in the intrigue, unable to leave and unable to protect the youngest of their number, their daughter, who before long is also abducted and drawn into the Devil’s lair.
Brotherhood of Satan is not a perfect movie. Nor is it necessarily nutrients for a gore-groomed generation of horror addicts. What it is is sly, subtle and well-made, appealing to the cinema historian as an example of ‘ the way things were done back then’ and to the casual lover of Satanic Panic films as a truly great example of how a fresh angle, heavily stylized fish-out-of-water thriller can add something to what by then must have been a cultural no-no so soon after Charlie Manson drove fear and paranoia about witchcraft and the devil into an otherwise slightly intelligent** population.
All in all, good old devil-worshipping fun for the whole family!!!
* If you can count plot description of a nearly forty-year old movie as a spoiler that is.
** Any claims of intelligence are as weighted by comparison against today’s flock.