Thursday, August 12, 2021

The Brotherhood of Satan (1971)

Director: Bernard McEveety

Notable Cast: Strother Martin, LQ Jones, Charles Bateman, Ahna Capri, Charles Robinson, Geri Reischl


As a cinephile dedicated to the strange corners, odd trends, and genre aspects of the cinematic world, Satanic cult films are a subgenre that I often visit and revisit from time to time. It’s not unusual to partake in a few new ones a year, whether they are recently made or re-released relics of a mostly forgotten era. Although The Brotherhood of Satan popped up occasionally in my exploration of the genre, it was a film that never piqued my interest enough to seek out. Especially after noticing the lukewarm reception even from the diehard fans. The announcement that the film would be part of the Arrow Video slate in 2021 was a bit of a shock considering its lack of stature in the genre. It’s not that the iconic distribution label, one that has made it a goal to uncover long lost “classics,” is above misfires. Hardly. This company did release Blu Rays for Satan’s Blade and Microwave Massacre after all. Yet, my expectations were relatively middling going into this oft overlooked early 70s flick.


Consider the expectations met.


However, The Brotherhood of Satan is both a surprise in quality and perplexingly off the mark. It falls in a strange place between exploitation fun and artistic merit, never hitting the wild roller coaster thrills of a film like Devil Rides Out or the artistry and smarts of a film like The Wicker Man. It’s better than expected in its attempts at uplifting its meandering script, but it’s also utterly bogged down by odd structure, leaps of logic, and glacial pacing. 


This leaves The Brotherhood of Satan as exemplifying the classification of “could have been fuckin’ awesome.” It starts off with a classic premise, where a family driving through rural country ends up stranded in a small town plagued with child disappearances. It’s a classic viewer surrogate model that allows the film to slowly unfurl its plot to the characters and audience. Yes, the initial mystery does grab its viewer. 


Unfortunately, it takes far too long for anything real punchy to arise in the script or plot. The meandering narrative never matches the more memorable moments with the connective tissue between them. It’s a relative slog for most of its runtime. Even by the third act, when actions and pacing should start to peak, there are long moments of setup that never snag the tension necessary and most of the horror is lost in the void of its build.


Yet, there’s enough merit to the execution in The Brotherhood of Satan that keeps the hooks in for its viewer to finish out the film. Director Bernard McEveety, know for - let me see - nothing of note really, knows how to slather in an interesting visual and that alone makes it understandable why Arrow Video released the film in high definition. Creeping fog, the design of outlandish Satanic cult sets, and atmospheric use of lighting give the film a distinct look that maximizes the 70s tone. Some of the performances are delightfully odd too, particularly of the cult leader or some of the concerned townsfolk looking to save the missing children and battle the servants of Satan. 


Even when the film decides to embrace its silliness, including scenes with a black knight or an opening sequence with tank treads crushing a car, they feel as though they come from a completely different film. It never finds its footing and so many secondary plots are left hanging. The Brotherhood of Satan makes a plethora of intriguing choices, but none of it quite fits in with the others. Even the baffling and artistic finale, which leaves so many questions, feels slightly off-kilter from the rest of the film. 


The execution in almost every aspect tends to feel as though the emotion of the characters and the plot are never intersecting with the visuals and tonality. It’s challenging to watch. Had McEveety and company been able to match the disparities, The Brotherhood of Satan might be one of those instant classic gems worthy of its peers. As is though, The Brotherhood of Satan is a cult curiosity more than anything else, intriguing for its artistic choices, but marred by its meandering narrative and sluggish pacing. For those who have already seen all of the Satanic cult classics, it’s worth the gander though.


Written By Matt Reifschneider

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