Guyana: Crime Of The Century (1980)
Director: Rene Cardona Jnr
Starring: Stuart Whitman, Gene Barry, John Ireland
Release date: January 25 (US). Into the 1980’s we go… This replaced the unavailable Windows from my original list. And what a film to get back off holiday to, cripes… Hilariously, I thought this was going to be a ‘heist’ flick! How wrong can you be? May contain a fruity beverage and spoilers…
Hounded religious zealot Jim Johnson flees the US with his disciples and in a remote jungle sets up a village called ‘Johnsontown’. Having heard terrible tales emanating from the tightly controlled community, the authorities decide to pay him a visit. It proves to be the last straw for Johnson’s fragile, paranoid psyche…
As you may have deciphered from the above, Guyana is a not very subtle take on the Jonestown Massacre. ‘Johnsontown’… please… And for Jim Jones read Jim Johnson. Now, the subject matter can be approached one of two ways; sensitively or exploitatively. In which camp do you think Rene Cardona Jnr has pitched his wigwam? I’ll give you a clue; the opening scene features a bloke standing beside a mirror with a gun to his own head. He pulls the trigger. No thoughtful preamble from Mr. Cardona Jnr. Blam. Sploosh. Welcome to the first genuine turtle’s head of the series.
I’ll make an effort to be objective, but fuck knows why I should bother. If Guyana isn’t exploitation it gets too close for comfort. In fact, it probably just about swerves the accusation as the more provocative scenes are thankfully brief (barring the inescapable finale), the worst of which is when three hungry youngsters are caught stealing provisions. This ain’t the place for a smack on the wrist and a ‘don’t do it again or else’. The parents hand their kids over to the tyrannical Johnson (Stuart Whitman) for punishment. One gets snakes tipped over him. Another is tied to a wooden contraption and dunked under water. The third is strung up and has his happy sacks electrocuted. Whether this actually happened in the real Jonestown or not, the despicable abuse of children should not be ghoulishly portrayed on screen. A more gifted director might use suggestion in such circumstances. Fate defused the simmering rage I had for Cardona Jnr when my internet connection failed immediately after this sequence and I was forced (read: happy) to postpone the rest of the movie till the following evening. It’s a miracle I returned, to be honest, but God help me, return I did…
For the first 20 minutes it’s almost all Johnson sermonising the gullible throng, our Stu putting on his best gravelly voice. Listening to him preach for 20 minutes is really quite boring. If the intention here is to depict Johnson’s charismatic hold over his followers, it is a stratospheric failure. These scenes, particularly the first one, are in dire need of editing/ butchering. When they get to the jungle, Reverend Windbag continues, this time interspersed with the aforementioned cruelty and torture. A copulating couple are rumbled and paraded naked in front of the throng before Johnson announces punishment; verily he sayeth, thou shalt both be rammed by a big black bloke, amen. Don’t worry, we don’t see lad and lass sexually assaulted, not in the version of the movie I watched anyway. Johnson also instigates a practise run with the pop – sans cyanide; it’s as if he already expects the only outcome will be mass suicide. Eventually, Congressman Lee O’Brien (Gene Barry) takes it upon himself to go out there with a bunch of reporters to see what’s going on, spurred by the previously mentioned head venting incident plus another ex-cult member’s suspicious death by train.
I don’t want to talk about this film anymore; I just want to forget it. The cultists don’t engage any kind of thought process. Of course, they’re cultists, they don’t think, they follow – so maybe that was a deliberate move by the director. But what I mean is I’m seeing no motivation. Take Gary Shaw (Bradford Dillman) for example. He’s a doctor, he must be an intelligent bloke – why is he there? What led him to this life choice, what did he see in Johnson that answered all his questions? If Cordona Jnr tells that story, he doesn’t need to tell it again for anyone else; I can guess how the rest got hooked. Shaw’s demeanour during the opening sermon suggests he isn’t sure about Johnson. By the end he’s lapping it up and I wonder if this is Cardona Jnr’s cack-handed attempt at a character arc. Consequently, there’s no way for me to understand how these folk have been rendered spellbound by Johnson’s twaddle because the Reverend himself is clearly delusional. He surrounds himself with armed guards and puts his followers through what amounts to slave labour. In return, they’re lucky if they get a bowl of rice and a spoonful of gravy after working a 13-hour day under the sun. I’d expect them to riot, not continue to fall in line. Of course the temerity to complain in Johnsontown will lead to a proper kicking, so it’s best not to.
The key in comprehending the cult mindset shown in Guyana, I guess, is to study the real Jonestown Massacre, but I’m not about to do that. All I know is it can and does happen; people fall under the spell of a captivating orator who blinds them to sense. Against all odds, the moment you’re probably dreading with the Kool Aid is reasonably competent in its presentation, albeit grimly horrific. Some of Johnson’s brethren begin to panic and second thoughts set in when they witness their friends begin dropping like flies around them. We see people forced into drinking the juice, others who try to run are shot. It’s numbing. Meanwhile, O’Brien and a number of his entourage have been brutally gunned down at the airstrip, including some of the sect members who had decided to split. The Jonestown Massacre is not a story I ever delved into deeply; what I do know is reflected fairly well in Guyana – Cordona Jnr does appear to have got a few details right, principally with the ‘look’ of the camp. He reins in his more exploitative tendencies and goes with an as-it-happened approach when the film ploughs into the final 30 lurid minutes.
The trouble is it’s dull, badly acted and directed as well as poorly written. Without the explicit aspect, Guyana could be safely tucked away in some forgotten slot on daytime TV; it’s flat out movie-of-the-week fodder. Many of the actors have been dubbed over (the infamous Hugo Stiglitz for example) and you have to wonder how Cordona Jnr managed to assemble this impressive kind of talent. Mind you, most of the actors are at that stage in their careers when they know better than to pass up another pay day. I’ll give Stuart Whitman his due, he’s not too bad as Jim Johnson, though not entirely comfortable with the amount of dialogue he has to deliver consistently. He just doesn’t convey a magnetic personality, the Jim Jones enigma. The rest plod from A to B, their only concern is to get through it. That was me too, as an audience – just get through it.
What else is there to say? I was a bit miffed when I saw what Guyana was about. Having seen footage featuring the aftermath of the real Jonestown Massacre a few years ago, I really didn’t want to go there again. It was a short documentary of photographic stills with actual audio of Jones rapping out his ‘message’ as the Kool Aid got dished up. Sickening and distressing.
I believe there are a couple of decent documentaries about Jim Jones, rather than watch this. But what’s to understand? He ordered little babies and kids to go first. Words fail. Guyana has depressed the living fuck out of me.
I’m giving the movie half a Guyana Flag out of 5.
ThereWolf, April 2012