Apprentice to Murder AKA The Teacher AKA Long Lost Friend (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (23rd August 2018).
The Film

Apprentice to Murder (Ralph L Thomas, 1988)

In rural Pennsylvania, in 1927, sixteen year old Billy Kelly (Chad Lowe) lives a repressed life with his alcoholic, aggressive father Tom (Eddie Jones) and his kindly mother Elma (Rutyana Alda). Like many others within the community, Billy is distrustful of local hermit Lars Hoeglin (Knut Husebo).

At work, Billy becomes friends with pretty Alice (Mia Sara), who introduces him to the man who lodges with their family, lay preacher and pow-wow Dr John Reese (Donald Sutherland). Alice tells Billy that soon, she plans to leave the rural community for Philadelphia, where she will seek work as a typist.

Learning of Tom’s alcoholism, Reese offers to give Billy a potion that – if administered daily in Tom’s food – will make his father sick when he takes a drink. In return, Billy, who is a self-taught artist, offers Reese a sketch he has made of the pow-wow; Reese asks if Billy can draw him some hexagrams. Billy agrees to do this, and in exchange Reese offers to teach Billy to read and write. Soon, Billy has become Reese’s apprentice, assisting the pow-wow on his excursions to heal members of his parish.

After one of Reese’s patients, a young girl, dies, Reese is arrested for practicing medicine ‘without due and proper qualifications’. He is soon released, however. When a local farm belonging to the Myers family begins to suffer with the mysterious deaths of its livestock, Reese offers to help by blessing the farm. However, within the farmhouse he encounters a hideous demonic entity that attacks him. Reese becomes desperately ill, experiencing both seizures and strange visions. He asks Billy to help him get to the city so that he can seek help from another pow-wow, Rufus Miller (Tiger Haynes). Rufus, Billy and Reese soon discover, is no longer practicing pow-wow (‘I got warned off real bad’, Rufus tells Reese, ‘on account of being a black man’). However, Rufus points Reese towards Mama Isobel (Minnie Gentry), who performs a strange ritual that seems to be Voudoun in origin. She tells Reese that in order to be free from the ‘curse’, he must get a lock of his tormentor’s hair and bury it ‘eight feet deep with human remains. His power will rot with the body’.

Reese becomes obsessed with the notion that the curse was put on him by the hermit, Lars Hoeglin. He and Billy return to the village, against the wishes of Alice, who refuses to go back with them. Billy returns home to find that his parents are dead, their house having burnt down after his drunken father fell asleep whilst smoking. Reese suggests that this event is evidence that the curse has been placed on Billy too. The pair become determined to sneak into Hoeglin’s house at night to steal a lock of his hair, a decision which has disastrous consequences.

Filmed in Norwegian locations which stand in for rural Pennsylvania, Apprentice to Murder is loosely adapted from a 1969 novel, Hex, by Arthur H Lewis. Lewis’ book was based on the 1928 Hex Hollow murder of York County, in which a farmer and practitioner of pow-wowism, Nelson Rehmeyer, was murdered by a man, John Blymyer (who was obsessed with the notion that he was being persecuted by witches), and two teenagers who believed Rehmeyer had cast a spell over their families. (Pow-wowism is a combination of Christian belief and shamanistic practices – a form of folk magic usually associated with healing rituals.) All three culprits were incarcerated, and after his release from prison one of Blymyer’s associates, John Curry, became an accomplished artist.

The film plays fast and loose with the true events on which it is based: here, the pow-wow, John Reese, is culprit rather than the victim, but like the real John Blymer, Reese becomes obsessed with the notion that his victim has placed a hex upon both the Myers family and himself. Hoeglin is distrusted by Billy from the get-go: in the film’s opening sequence, Billy is out hunting but is accosted by Hoeglin. Billy runs back to his family’s house, where he tells his mother that ‘That crazy old man came after me’. Elma reminds her son that ‘Lars Hoelgrin is all right, as long as you just stay away from him’.

Reese’s visions and powers as a pow-wow seem to be connected to an undiagnosed form of epilepsy. At several points in the film, Reese’s more powerful visions are associated with seizures that he experiences. For his part, Reese suggests that he is simply a conduit: ‘It’s the Lord’s gift, Billy’, he says, ‘I’m just an instrument’. When he is arrested following the death of the young girl, Reese tells Billy that ‘They crucified Christ, Billy. This is just a little test the Lord asks me to endure’. Billy has already been exposed to rumours suggesting the same (‘I heard he was in a funny farm for four years’, Alice says), but in this scene Reese tells his assistant that he has been arrested five times previously and was a patient in a mental hospital for three years. The mental hospital is where he was first exposed to pow-wowism by another inmate (‘the greatest pow-wow who ever lived, Billy. He taught me. He died there’), through Johann George Hohmann’s 1819 book of incantations Long Lost Friend, a copy of which Reese gives to Billy, telling him that ‘This book keeps you safe from your enemies, visible or invisible’.

The film depicts Reese’s ‘power’ as a pow-wow ambiguously. Reese is introduced early in the film, as Billy and Alice leave work. The workers are confronted by a dog which is either rabid or simply mad. The dog seems ready to attack until Reese enters the scene, seemingly out of nowhere, and manages to tame the animal through a combination of body language and a calm, serene voice. However, just as the creature becomes settled, someone else shoots it dead, undercutting the efficacy, or perhaps profundity, of Reese’s actions. Later, after Billy has become Reese’s apprentice, Reese is shown seemingly miraculously bringing a woman out of a fever; but as if to balance this, shortly afterwards he is shown unsuccessfully attempting to bring a dying girl back to life. (The girl dies; later, her parents will blame Reese for her death.) Nevertheless, going by what we see onscreen, Reese’s success rate, in terms of healing, seems to be 50/50. When Reese visits the Myers farm with the intention of blessing it, he enters the farmhouse and sees a demonic entity lunge at him. This ‘vision’ is presented for the audience, the farmhouse bathed in red light and a shadowy form tearing towards Reese from behind a closed door. The fact that what Reese sees is presented visually for the audience seems to confirm that it is to be considered ‘factual’ (within the context of the diegesis, of course). However, as the film reaches its closing sequences, it becomes clear that the film’s audience have simply been encouraged to share Reese’s delusions and hallucinations; in the film’s denouement, it becomes clear that Billy has begun to share these hallucinations too.

As the story progresses, Billy is forced to choose between his loyalty to Reese, his responsibilities towards his family, and his love of Alice. A free spirit, Alice wishes to leave for Philadelphia, where she plans to seek employment as a typist. However, she is unwilling to wait for Billy and pressures him to go with her. Billy is willing but feels unable to leave his family. In their first meeting, Billy tells Reese that he wants to leave for the city but is afraid of leaving his mother alone with his alcoholic father. ‘I can’t work here for the rest of my life’, Billy tells Reese. ‘Do you feel trapped?’, Reese asks him in return. ‘I ain’t lookin’ for fame and fortune, sir’, Billy responds, ‘Just a life’. ‘Life don’t come free’, Reese informs him gnomically. Eventually, Alice issues Billy with an ultimatum (‘I’m going, Billy, with or without you’), but Billy is forced to travel to the city anyway, in order to seek assistance for Reese after Reese has encountered the ‘demon’ at the Myers farm (‘I have seen the face of Satan’, Reese says, ‘This curse is in me’).

Ultimately, Apprentice to Murder is about the manner in which, regardless of how well-intentioned its application is, a delusional belief can spread to such an extent that it distorts the sense of reality of those it touches. As such, the film feels strongly allegorical, an examination of a subtle and insipid, microcosmic form of totalitarianism.




Video

Apprentice to Murder is presented on this Blu-ray in its uncut form, with a runtime of 92:31 mins. The 1080p presentation uses the AVC codec and takes up a little over 22Gb of space on the Blu-ray disc.

The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Shot on 35mm colour stock, Apprentice to Murder is here presented in a 2k restoration based on an interpositive source. It’s a solid, pleasing presentation of the film. Detail is very good, with fine detail being present in closeups. The image has a sense of depth to it also. Colour is naturalistic, the opening sequence featuring some lush greens of the foliage presented in travelling shots of the landscape. Skin tones sometimes look just a little ‘hot’. Contrast levels are pleasing, with richly defined midtones and a balanced shoulder. Perhaps owing to the interpositive source, however, there’s a sharp drop into the toe, with blacks sometimes seeming slightly ‘crushed’. The encode to disc is fine, retaining the structure of 35mm film.

Some full-sized screengrabs are included at the bottom of this review. Please click to enlarge.




Audio

Audio is presented via a LPCM 2.0 mono source. This is rich and deep (with some very bassy thunder in a few scenes), though there is some very slight background ‘hiss’ here and there. Dialogue is audible throughout, nevertheless. Optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are included; these are easy to read and free from errors.

Extras

The disc includes:
- An audio commentary by Bryan Reesman. Reesman, a freelance entertainment journalist, discusses the film’s origins and talks about the circumstances of its production. Reesman spends a lot of time describing what’s on screen but nevertheless offers some interesting observations: for example, highlighting the thematic similarities between this film and director Ralph L Thomas’ theatrical debut Ticket to Heaven (1981).

- ‘Original Sin’ (15:29). This video interview with critic Kat Ellinger offers reflection on some of the film’s themes, reflecting on the theme of religious mania in Gothic fiction from James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner onwards. Ellinger draws a connection between Charles Brockden Brown’s Weiland and Stephen King’s The Shining that I have to admit that, as a theory I’ve encountered before, I’ve never found entirely convincing (The Shining’s theme of mental deterioration and its connection to masculinity could just as easily be linked to any number of 18th/19th Century novels). Ellinger suggests a lineage between Apprentice to Murder and the films focusing on Satanic cults in the 1960s and 1970s. Lots of films and novels are namechecked but their relationship with Apprentice to Murder often feels tangential and the coverage of them synoptic. Ellinger’s discussion of the film’s relationship with the real events that inspired its story is more precise and on-point.

- ‘Colour Me Kelvin’ (9:07). Cinematographer Kelvin Pike talks about his work on the film. He praises the beauty of the Norwegian locations uses as exteriors during production, and he talks about how some of the film’s visual effects (such as when the ‘ghosts’ appear to Reese in his bedroom) were achieved through the simple technique of double exposure – the method used by spirit photographers during the 19th Century.

- ‘Grantham to Bergen’ (7:22)
. Makeup artist Robin Grantham reflects on his work on the production, praising the abilities of the actors to ‘carry’ the effects. He suggests that the shoot was ‘disorganised’, possibly owing to Thomas’ lack of experience making feature films, with a production schedule that was lacking or absent entirely.

Trailer (1:19)
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Overall

Though not a groundbreaking film, Apprentice to Murder is anchored by some solid performances from its likeable leads: Chad Lowe and Mia Sara make an attractive, sympathetic couple, and Donald Sutherland’s performance makes Reese a very rounded character – well-intentioned but ultimately deluded, softly-spoken yet ultimately deadly. In its exploration of the issue of faith and the juxtaposition of various beliefs, it feels very much ‘of a period’ with Alan Parker’s superb Angel Heart, released a year earlier. Though elements of the story might suggest a relationship with the horror genre, Apprentice to Murder is ultimately more of a psychological thriller focusing on the creation/evolution of a shared delusion. In her interview, Ellinger namechecks James Hogg’s The Private Confessions and Memoirs of a Justified Sinner, which as a cornerstone of Scottish literature was an acknowledged influence on Iain Banks’ 1984 novel The Wasp Factory – and with its focus on obsession, ritual and delusion, Banks’ novel has some interesting similarities with Apprentice to Murder.

Arrow’s Blu-ray presentation of Apprentice to Murder is good and contains some interesting contextual material. In terms of specific comments made within the extra features, Robin Grantham’s suggestion that the film was shot without a proper production schedule is interesting and, if true, it’s a wonder that the film – whilst not a masterpiece – holds together as well as it does.

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