- Movie Rating -

Guyana: Cult of the Damned (1980)

| January 25, 1980

I don’t get it.
I really don’t get it.

What sick, hateful, cynical minds it takes to look at a shameful tragedy like the mass suicides at Guyana, a tragedy which claimed the lives of 918 people, and see marketing potential.  What cold-blooded thinking.  How did they talk themselves into this?  Why didn’t they talk each other out of it?

Guyana Cult of the Damned was released just 14 months after the tragedy, which means that producer Rene Cordona, Jr. was already looking to cash in which the country was still reeling from this atrocity.  Press notes indicated that “he got there first.”

Now, it is true that a respectful film could be made about the suicides at Jonestown, and true there actually are.  There is a very insightful documentary made as part of PBS’s American Experience that does about as good a job as it can to get inside the temple and inside the mind of Jim Jones to find out what let to the tragedy.  But Cordona isn’t interested in this.  His is cheap exploitation, using gut-wrenching violence and low-standard production values to pry up this story for cheap carnival show thrills.

Guyana is almost completely absent of any curiosity or real study of what might have happened inside The People’s Temple.  What made Jim Jones go mad?  How did his charisma and charm keep so many people under his thumb for so long?  Why did so many willingly take their lives under his command?  What was their thinking?  The movie isn’t about that.  It seems to have been cobbled together more or less the way that the outside world heard about it through gossip and a quick glance at the headlines.

The movie promises that the story is true but then changes the names – Jim Jones becomes Jim Johnson.  Jones town becomes Johnsontown.  And the leader is played by Stuart Whitman in a performance that offers no insights into how his charm and gift for oratory mesmerized so many people.  He growls his speeches from behind his podium and behind the trademark sunglasses and urges his followers to come with him from San Francisco down to the jungles of Guyana but you never have any sense of why anyone would ever want to follow this man.

And then, to pad time, we get scenes of violence and torture of the cult members, up to and including using electrodes on the genitals of a young boy.  And then we get great stars like Joseph Cotton and Yvonne DeCarlo who drop through and at least have the decency to look uneasy about having to be in this movie.  All of this leads, of course, to the mass suicide which puts us on edge because since we already know that this movie will do anything to exploit this tragedy, the approaching scenes of the cult members dying from drinking Jones’ homemade Kool-Aid fill us with dread and shame.  And, on that note, it doesn’t disappoint.  We get shots of all of the cult members lined-up, taking a drink or having it forced on them and then grabbing their stomachs, screaming in pain and then dropping dead.  And, as if this weren’t taking enough of a dump on this horror, Cordona then intersplices photographs of the real corpses at Guyana.

Where were the gatekeepers?  Where were the exectutives with common sense – common decency – in mind?  Who was there shooting the scenes of the boy getting electrodes on his genitals?  Who was there shooting scenes of screaming and dying?  Who were the executives at Universal that put profit above common decency here?  Who looked at the photographs of those bodies at Guyana, all those lives wasted under the spell of a madman and decided that this was the way that they wanted to make their money?  They all should be ashamed of themselves.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1980) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized