Fans of Mexican exploitation director Rene Cardona Jr. will be excited to see his sensationalized account of the Jonestown Massacre titled Guyana: Cult of the Damned finally hitting Blu-ray. Produced to cash in on the 1978 mass suicide led by cult leader Jim Jones, the film follows the true life events closely but abandons any hope of developing a compelling story. Code Red and Kino Lorber bring the film’s 90 minute cut to Blu-ray with a new 2K transfer and a solid DTS audio mix. For Fans Only.
"If this isn't a religious institution, then why are you tax-exempt?"
The film opens with narration from a survivor who details the rise of the enraged Reverend James Johnson (Stuart Whitman) in San Francisco. Johnson brainwashes the congregation claiming the world is against them and that Christianity is the devil. He proclaims that he is their God now and will provide protection and everlasting life in exchange for their worldly possessions. Seeking a place to call their own, the congregation establishes a settlement in the swampy landscape of Guyana in exchange for their passports and individual freedoms. Word of the settlement’s conditions reaches America where Congressman Leo Ryan (Gene Barry) launches an investigation including a risky visit to Johnsontown.
Produced a year after the real events at Jonestown, this film doesn't hold back in portraying cult leader Jim Jones in all his psychotic glory. The exploitative feature cashes in on the hysteria surrounding the suicide cult with relative ease. From the beginnings in the San Francisco church to the “white night”, the film details the historical details quite accurately even including real photos from the aftermath in Jonestown. Scenes depicting children who received the poison are very intense and difficult to watch. Through all the horror I had a bit of a laugh when the narrator chimed in with "It was a big night for death".
The notorious elements of Guyana: Cult of the Damned are confined to the horrifying punishments brought upon those who don’t follow the rules. When three kids steal food after the leader imposed rationing, each of them is disciplined in a unique way. One child has snakes dumped on him, one is dunked into a well, and the last has his genitals electrocuted while strung up naked. As you can imagine these scenes are excellent fodder for exploitation audiences! The electrocution scene was the cause for Universal Studios to heavily edit the feature for American audiences leaving rabid cult audiences to seek out the original cut of the film.
Guyana Cult of the Damned features a cast of slumming 1950’s character actors who ham it up big time. Stuart Whitman (Night of the Lepus) keeps his dark sunglasses on and goes for broke as the fiery cult leader never letting up until the final frames of the film. Gene Barry (The War of the Worlds) utilizes his charisma and take-charge attitude to inhabit Congressman Leo Ryan’s crusade to Guyana. Jennifer Ashley (Chained Heat), Yvonne De Carlo (The Munsters), Bradford Dillman (Escape from the Planet of the Apes), and Joseph Cotton (Soylent Green) are all very good here though you can see the utter exhaustion in their eyes from working in the sweltering Mexican jungle.
Where Guyana: Cult of the Damned works well is in establishing moments of sensationalized sleaze paired with the atrocities happening within the settlement. However, Cardona Jr. chooses to highlight the horrors without stopping to look for motivation or provide any context for the atrocities. Who are these people? Why would they choose to follow the Reverend? We get one moment of introspection with Dr. Shaw’s wife asking “How did we get here?” after witnessing the children’s punishment. It all feels like a reenactment from personal accounts and news stories rather than an engaging narrative feature. I’m reminded that The Other Side of Madness handled the Manson Family murders with an artistic flair and a compelling story without succumbing to a simple exploitative retelling.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Guyana: Cult of the Damned arrives on Blu-ray thanks to Code Red and Kino Lorber. The Region A BD-50 disc is housed in a standard keepcase with reversible artwork. Disc loads the Code Red and Kino Lorber logos before landing on the Main Menu screen with scenes from the film playing over typical navigation options. Watch out for Lazarus!
Code Red and Kino Lorber provide Guyana: Cult of the Damned with a new 2k transfer in the original anamorphic 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Grain is stable throughout the feature though it becomes quite heavy when stock footage is utilized. Specks, dirt, flickering, and some minimal print damage are apparent at times though it never detracts from the experience. Shots from jungle animals to wide shots of San Francisco are dirty, unfocused, and quite gritty though most of these instances are intended to add atmosphere to the feature.
Scenes within the Johnsontown settlement reveal stable colors with strong primaries. Fine detail is evident in closeups but loses quality on medium and wide shots. Facial features and costuming show signs of fine detail. Reverend Johnson's red button-down is bright and well established within the earth tones of the jungle compound. Flesh tones are mostly even throughout the feature. Bright outdoor jungle scenes with natural light are overexposed at times but nothing that detracts from the experience. Those with a DVD of the 115-minute Director’s Cut should consider adding this to their Ray Cardona Jr. collection!
Guyana: Cult of the Damned praises the supreme leader with a solid DTS HD-MA 2.0 audio track. The audio mix is quite good offering a clear and clean presentation without hiss or pop detected. Dialogue exchanges and the non-stop narration are bright and never lost within the scoring or effects tracks. Music tracks are dream-like punctuated with bursts of tense rhythms. The presence of screeching strings mark the horrific moments with an arresting energy.
For special features Code Red / Kino Lorber provide some gritty trailers and an isolated music score. The films of Rene Cardona Jr. are never known for their scoring but here it's a nice touch.
Cardona Jr.’s attempt to cash in on the Jonestown Massacre feels more docudrama than sleazy ripoff making the whole production seem almost pointless. The few shining moments of degradation and fiery insanity aren’t enough to carry the director’s vision confidently. Committed performances and the impressive production design sell this feature to the end making this one of the lesser films in the celebrated director's filmography.
Code Red and Kino Lorber provide a solid A/V package for their Guyana: Cult of the Damned Blu-ray release but no special features worth writing home about. Collectors should keep their non-anamorphic 115 minute Director’s Cut DVDs and grab this one for the improved image quality and isolated music score. For Fans Only.