The 1970s was a decade that loved satanism. Okay, it always seemed to be morally outraged about the idea of satanism, and militant Christians were against anything they perceived to be possible of inspiring devil worship in children, such as rock music, comics, and table top role playing games. But despite that outrage you couldn’t avoid stories about devil worship and satanic cults in the 70s. It was big business.
With Rosemary’s Baby being a huge hit in 1968 it wasn’t long before a lot more satanic movies came along. Some were good, others were pretty forgettable. The Brotherhood of Satan is a film that came pretty early on in this craze, having been released in 1971, and managed to be pretty middle of the road in terms of quality, and because it never achieved huge acclaim or scorn it kind of faded from memory, making this new Blu-ray release from Arrow one of the first chances a lot of people will have to experience the movie.
The film follows a young family as they celebrate their daughter’s birthday and travel across country to visit their grandmother. Ben (Charles Bateman) is the father, a man whose wife died several years ago, and now he’s raising his daughter K.T. (Geri Reischl) with help from his girlfriend Nicky (Ahna Capri). When the three of them travel close to the small town of Hillsboro their car radio goes out, and they discover a ruined vehicle, a car crushed flat. Travelling into town to tell the local sheriff (L.Q. Jones) they’re instead met with suspicion and surprise from the locals.
Attempting to flee Hillsboro their car runs off the road and they find themselves needing to head back to town for help. This is when they learn a terrible secret: for some reason no one has been able to enter or leave Hillsboro for the past three days, except this family. And what’s more, local families are dying in bizarre, brutal ways, with the children of the families going missing. Some kind of force is keeping the townspeople hostage, and now Ben fears his daughter might be at risk.
The Brotherhood of Satan is a fairly subtle film in a lot of ways. It starts with a strange scene of a toy tank, intercut with an actual tank running over a car whilst people inside scream for help. Little explanation is given here, and this is something that will happen a lot across the film. Things are hinted at, they’re suggested, but we never get straight answers; instead, the filmmakers leave it up to the audience to figure out what’s going on.
This is a pretty bold move, and one that’s unusual for films at the time. It keeps the audience in the dark a lot, and we get to learn things as the characters do for the most part. That being said, there are times where we get to see behind the scenes, where we view the satanic cult and their rituals, but we’re just casual observers here, and the characters don’t go out of their way to explain what’s happening with clunky dialogue. As such, even though we’re seeing behind the curtain as it were, we still have to fill in a lot of the gaps ourselves.
Director Bernard McEveety seems to take a somewhat laid back approach to directing too. There are several scenes where the audience are treated as mere observers looking in. There are scenes where several characters are standing around discussing what’s going on. Instead of having close-ups of the actors when they talk, changing angle or shifting the frame it’s all done in one long shot, where everyone is visible on screen at once. It plays out more like a theatre performance than film, and it really makes even the most mundane scenes stand out.
Because of the lack of explanation at times, and the way the film’s shot, it means that you’re having to do a lot of the work yourself, and may even have to watch through a couple of times to get everything. For example, I didn’t even realise that the head of the cult was doing double duty as the town doctor alongside the heroes because actor Strother Martin presented himself so differently in these two roles. It was incredibly subtle, yet so obvious. It’s this kind of thing that makes this a movie where you’ll end up wanting to watch through again, looking for other things you may have missed.
Unfortunately, due to being something of a niche movie it’s fairly light on special features. There are no behind the scenes footage, nor interviews with cast and crew on the movie made at the time. There are a couple of things that are worth watching though, ‘The Children of Satan’ is an interesting short documentary that talks to two of the child actors involved in the movie, discussing their memories of making the film, and ‘Satanic Panic: How the 1970s Conjured the Brotherhood of Satan’ is a nice little visual essay by horror and film historian David Flint. The highlight of the extras, however, is probably the new commentary track featuring horror writers Kim Newman and Sean Hogan. The two of them not only talk about the film in great depth, but horror and entertainment of that era, and where this movie fits into the satanic films of the era.
This new set proves to be an interesting look at a forgotten horror movie that was bold enough to try its own thing, and that treated its audience as intelligent people able to think for themselves. Definitely one worth checking out, even if just to say you’ve seen it.
The Brotherhood of Satan is out on Blu-ray on 30th August from Arrow Video.