Guyana: Cult of the Damned (1979)
Stuart Whitman is the Rev. Jim Johnson in Guyana: Cult of the Damned!
Yes, the inch-high-eyebrowed Treasure of the Amazon star plays the real-life deranged and delusional cult leader who convinced nearly 1,000 of his followers to commit mass suicide by drinking poisoned Flavor Aid in 1978. Dubbed “the Jonestown Massacre,” the tragedy quickly beget two screen adaptations. Hollywood went prestigious with the 1980 telefilm Guyana Tragedy, for which Powers Boothe won the Emmy; Mexico, however, struck sooner with 1979’s Cult of the Damned (aka Guyana: Crime of the Century), for which Whitman won … well, nothing, but maybe he got to keep his character’s omnipresent, They Live-style sunglasses? One can dream!
Hey, at least Whitman’s film, with Tintorera: Killer Shark’s René Cardona Jr. at the helm, played theaters. It aimed for pure exploitation, which might be why its subject is named Johnson instead of Jones. (Make no mistake: He’s totally playing Jim Jones.) Whatever the reason, Cult of the Damned opens in San Francisco as
Jones Johnson preaches fire and brimstone from the pulpit. Clad in all-white, cape included, he hammers and yammers for six minutes before unveiling visual aids: a map of South America, with which his parishioners kinda need to familiarize themselves, since he’s just all but ordered them to ditch their possessions and move there to live and work at the Jonestown Johnsontown compound, as God supposedly has instructed. (Disclaimer: The Lord does not appear in this motion picture. But The Munsters’ Yvonne De Carlo does.)
Ostensibly, Johnsontown is established as a farming community, yet the only crops his highness seems interested in yielding are human slavery and total submission. Disobey and there’s hell to pay … and shock value for viewers. For instance, a man who attempts to leave finds his back whipped to bloody shreds. A little boy who swipes food from the kitchen is tied to the ground and tortured with live snakes, while an accomplice is strapped to a wooden contraption and dunked underwater. A young man caught fornicating with his girlfriend must endure rape by a big, scary black man Johnson hand-picks from his congregation.
That last bit proves Cardona’s trip to Guyana was charted solely for ruthless purposes. The reverend’s teachable moments might carry more dramatic weight if they happened to people we cared about, much less knew who they were, but every Johnsontown resident who isn’t Johnson is poorly delineated; Cardona and co-scripter Carlos Valdemar (1978’s The Bermuda Triangle) have sketched them so lightly, it’s as if they were created from a dot-to-dot puzzle with four points at best.
Guyana: Cult of the Damned may “just” be a classic case of headlines-torn exploitation, yet the movie is disturbing all the same, particularly in the section focused on the ill-fated exploratory visit/rescue attempt by a congressman (Gene Barry, 1953’s The War of the Worlds). Lucky for us, either no one told Whitman this flick was a cash-grab or he just didn’t care that it was, because the man delivers a performance that goes for broke … and, yes, a plate of ham. There’s kitsch in its grip. —Rod Lott