The first time Dr. Reese (Donald Sutherland) shows up in Ralph L. Thomas’ Apprentice to Murder there’s a rabid dog on the loose. He tries to cure the animal and the dog seems to calm down, but he’s shot anyway, and the truth gets buried. In the end, it’s a matter of what you believe – either Dr. Reese orchestrated the scene to make it look like he had powers, or it was a coincidence that Dr. Reese showed up, but the dog wasn’t cured, or the dog was cured, but the town didn’t show enough faith in the doctor’s abilities.
Billy (Chad Lowe) bears witness to the whole affair and when he needs help convincing his father to give up the bottle, he turns to Dr. Reese for advice. This time, Dr. Reese’s instructions get followed and they work. He makes a believer out of Billy, but because the film doesn’t declare a genre, it’s less clear what we’re supposed to believe.
Early on you’re told these events are “Inspired by a true story” (they are – the Hex Murder of 1928) but it’s easy to forget that while you’re watching the film. Listening to the different bonus features on Arrow’s new Blu-Ray release, you get everything from religious horror film, to psychological thriller, to even supernatural thriller if the trailer’s to have the last word.
There’s a way of reading the film where it’s grounded in reality, but you can also question what that reality is; like when you watch the TV show, Supernatural, with the understanding that angels and demons exist in this world. The same could be true of the world of Apprentice to Murder, but it’s no less compelling if it’s not, because then you have to question Dr. Reese’s motives. Is he manipulating Billy, mentally unstable, or onto something when he expresses his concerns about Satan?
Filmed in Norway as a substitute for Pennsylvania, Apprentice to Murder deals with the practice of powwow medicine and if I could change one thing about this movie it’s that it takes for granted that you’ll know what powwow is (or that it’s a real thing and not something the film’s made-up).
Eventually this becomes clear from watching the movie, but Paul Corupe confirms it in his excellent booklet essay where he explains that, “Unrelated to Native American powwow social gatherings, the German derived tradition of ‘powwow’ is practiced by a ‘hex master’ or ‘hex doctor,’ a kind of devout Christian equivalent to a shaman or medicine man.” Sutherland is excellent as the over-the-top doctor while Lowe plays nicely off him as the unsuspecting youth who gets taken in by his teachings. Mia Sara co-stars as Billy’s girlfriend, Alice, who, like the synth music that occasionally plays in this movie, feels more of the time when this movie came out (the late 80’s) than of the movie — which isn’t really a complaint, it’s just more unexpected.
Arrow’s Blu-Ray includes new interviews with cinematographer Kelvin Pike and makeup supervisor Robin Grantham. There’s also a video essay from critic Kat Ellinger, where she contextualizes Apprentice to Murder within the tradition of other religious horror films and novels, and a commentary by critic Bryan Reesman, where he talks about hex signs (or, in the film, hexagrams) and how young people courted before technology.
Apprentice to Murder isn’t flashy but sometime the most practical detail (like Billy drawing on both sides of the paper he gives Dr. Reese) produces the best reoccurring visual (that drawing flipping back and forth on Dr. Reese’s wall).
Apprentice to Murder is available now on Blu-ray from Arrow.