Color, 1988, 92 mins. 31 secs.
Directed by Ralph L. Thomas
Starring Donald Sutherland, Chad Lowe, MIa Sara, Rutanya Alda, Eddie Jones, Knut Husebø, Adrian Sparks
Arrow Video (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD) / WS (1.85:1: (16:9)

An Apprentice to Murderunusual Norwegian production marketing Apprentice to Murderas a horror film or a suspense thriller but actually something a lot more slippery and restrained, Apprentice to Murder is a prime example of how a drab title can prevent a film from finding its target audience. Elements of religious conflict, superstition, and rural strife mingle here with elements of folk horror, though that last part doesn't really kick in until the last half hour. Up until that point it's more of a peculiar character study

Purporting to be inspired by a true story, the film details the sinister events in 1927 Pennsylvania when young, illiterate tannery mill worker Billy Kelly (Lowe) ends up seeking help for a nasty cheek wound from John Reese (Sutherland), an herbalist and "Powwow" folk magic healer. Impressed by the boy's drawing ability, John offers some powder to help cure his alcoholic father, which causes a violent reaction but ultimately does the trick. Soon Billy is getting reading lessons from John despite the warnings from his coworker and possible girlfriend, Alice (Sara), that there's something odd about the healer. All seems relatively well until John is hauled off by the police for practicing medicine without a license (which may have caused the death of a young girl), but his speedy release again ties the two men together for a self-appointed mission of spiritual warfare against what John claims is responsible for a pestilence plaguing one of the nearby farms.

Apprentice to MurderUnderstandably difficult to promote, Apprentice to Murder was mostly buried theatrically by New World Pictures (who was distracted around the same time by Apprentice to MurderHeathers, Slugs, and Hellbound: Hellrasier II), though it did enjoy a solid life on VHS and laserdisc around the turn of the decade. Had it been marketed as more of an art film it likely would have done better given the caliber of talent here, from director Ralph L. Thomas (who helmed the excellent and now sadly buried Ticket to Heaven) to co-screenwriter Allan Scott, who penned three films for Nicolas Roeg (The Witches, Cold Heaven, and most famously Don't Look Now, also starring Sutherland). The actors all do fine work here with the always interesting Sara making the most of a fairly thankless role, and Sutherland (who's very engaged here, contrary to some naysayers) and Lowe actually working up some interesting chemistry. The film will likely frustrate many viewers as it plays out ambiguously all the way to the end, leaving just enough room open for the viewer to decide whether anything beyond this mortal realm might be at play in some of the events in the film. The least satisfying element is easily the score by Charles Gross, a talented composer (as Blue Sunshine easily proves) who comes up with some interesting melodies here but sabotages them with awkward, rinky-dink synthesizer arrangements that feel terribly out of place. That debit aside, it's a curious and haunting little film worth giving a shot as long as your genre expectations are in check.

In 2018, the film made its Blu-ray debut in the U.K. from Arrow Video sporting a new 2K transfer from an interpositive, easily undoing the damage of years of gray market releases. Apprentice to MurderThe film is quite striking when seen in good quality with its painterly landscape shots in particular faring well here, and some sparing expressionistic flourishes in the third act (such as Sutherland's Apprentice to Murderdemonic face-off in a red-lit room) pack a nice wallop now. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 track sounds fine but remains a very simple mix in keeping with most New World titles of the time. Optional English SDH subtitles are also provided. A new audio commentary by author and critic Bryan Reesman is very worthwhile and fascinating, adopting a friendly tone to tie together of number of disparate elements like Pretty Little Liars, the Bluetooth symbol, and modern Wiccan practices while rattling off tons of trivia about the participants and production. Especially good is the final 30 minutes when he really bites into the true story that inspired the film, explaining how and why it diverges so dramatically at this point in the narrative. In "Original Sin" (15m29s), Diabolique's Kat Ellinger offers a sketch of how religious mania threads throughout horror literature and cinema from Dracula through the likes of The Exorcist, The Night of the Hunter, The Centerfold Girls, and The Devil Rides Out, while cinematographer Kelvin Pike appears for "Colour Me Kelvin" (9m7s), discussing the pros and cons of shooting in Norway and the professional connections that landed him the job. Finally, "Grantham to Bergen" (7m22s) features makeup artist Robin Grantham discussing the demands of his job including the creation of makeup appliances like Lowe's nasty wound under his eye. Finally you get a theatrical trailer that bends over backwards to remind you of The Exorcist and spoils most of the climax. The packaging features reversible sleeve options (the original poster art or a new design by Haunt Love) and, in the first pressing only, an insert booklet with new liner notes by Paul Corupe.

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Reviewed on August 2, 2018.