In 1976, Rene Cardona Jr. co-wrote the film SURVIVE, which was based on a real-life tragedy where plane crash survivors were forced to resort to cannibalism, and it was directed by his prolific father. A few years later, Cardona Jr. was back to tackle an even more infamous catastrophe, and this time he was in the director’s chair for GUYANA: CRIME OF THE CENTURY. Based on events that occurred barely a year after this was lensed, the film recreates the last days of Jim Jones, a fanatical California-based minister who set up a commune in Guyana, which ended up in a mass suicide involving himself and over 900 followers.
Our movie commences with the onscreen warning “Names have been changed to protect the innocent,” but all you really have to know is that Reverand Jim Jones is here called Reverend James Johnson and played by the underrated Stuart Whitman, and the community of Jonesville is now called Johnsontown. In the fall of 1978, Johnson and his congregation are given permission to set up shop in Guyana, South America, with most of the flock fancying him as a Christ-like figure whose word is absolute law. But all is not rosy in this utopia, as citizens are exploited as hard labor and then given rations of rice with a spot of bland gravy. Although Johnson rants and raves about all things holy and his love for his people, he rules over them as a sadistic tyrant. A would-be deserter is drugged and left on the railroad track to be crushed; a trio of boys caught pinching midnight snacks are punished in the snake pit, with water torture, and shocks to the private parts; and a young couple caught making love has the male forced to be sexually assaulted in front of everyone by a large black man (luckily, the scene cuts away before we the audience is subjected to anything further than suggestion).
Meanwhile, word of the horrors of Johnsontown get back to the U.S. via complaints from friends and relatives of the followers, and an investigation is under way. California congressman Lee O'Brien (Gene Barry in a strong performance), sets up a team of reporters, photographers and other interested parties to fly to Johnsontown and determine the truth about it with their own eyes. But after Johnson advises his pack to act happy and wear painted smiles, some of them decide they want to leave with O'Brien—all which are gunned down before they could take off for the States. After a failed attempt to arrange exile in the Soviet Union, Johnson makes his followers swig a concoction of Kool Aid laced with cyanide, and over 900 Johnsontown residents are found dead before the authorities arrive.
Although Cardona’s film could have been beaming with sensationalism, the exploitation is surprisingly toned down, basically limited to the aforementioned happenings. It’s as though he wanted to make a more credible, straightforward retelling of the appalling events, probably aiming it at a more mainstream audience (this film was overshadowed by the more highbrow telefilm, GUYANA TRAGEDY: THE STORY OF JIM JONES, also shown to U.S. audiences in 1980). Although there are stretches of boredom here, the “train wreck” curiosity of the subject matter, the impressive recreation of the Jonesville/Johnsontown camp when compared to authentic photos and newsreels, and a familiar cast -- filled with notable character actors in the trash film phases of their career – help pull this off, at least on B grade level. Whitman was a smart choice for the imposing lead, always hiding behind dark sunglasses and exemplifying a true madman with too much power. His divine speeches to his faithful legions display a man almost possessed, while the other side of Johnson is seen as an ailing, scheming and extremely shrewd individual.
Also in the cast are Joseph Cotton and John Ireland as Johnson's shifty lawyers (they apparently escape before the mass death, nearly acting out a Hope and Crosby routine in order pull off a quick exit), Yvonne DeCarlo (yes, Lily Munster) as Johnsontown's Press Officer, Bradford Dillman as the loyal doctor who mixes the deadly punch, Robert DoQui (“King George” in Jack Hill’s COFFY), Jennifer Ashley (also in Cardona Jr.’s atrocious TINTORERA), German actress Nadiuska, Tony Young (CHROME AND HOT LEATHER), and Cardona Jr. regular Hugo Stiglitz, whose voice has been re-dubbed by another actor. In fact, a lot of the foreign actors have been re-dubbed by none other than Mel Welles!
Released in the U.S. as GUYANA: CULT OF THE DAMNED and re-edited down to 90 minutes by Universal (who also opted to add voiceover narration by a “survivor”), the film was previously available on VHS on the VCII label, an offshoot of porn company VCX, but it was very hard to locate a copy. VCI Entertainment’s DVD presents what you would label the director’s cut of the film, clocking in at 115 minutes. The transfer is acceptable for a budget release. Although fans of this title who never saw a decent, uncut version of it will most likely be very pleased, quality nuts will nitpick at a rather soft-looking image with barely stable colors which often bleed. There is a scattered amount of print damage, and although the audio often suffers from background noise, it’s passable overall. The film is presented in a suitable 1.78:1 ratio, but without anamorphic enhancement.
Extras on the disc are minimal—though many cast members are still alive, most of them are either retired or most likely couldn’t be bothered doing interviews. There is no actual trailer for GUYANA present, only trailers for three other VCI releases: ROBINSON CRUSOE, HANNIBAL and MEIN KAMPF. Bios for Stuart Whitman, Gene Berry, Jennifer Ashley and Rene Cardona Jr. are included. All of them are sloppily put together, but worst of all, they display the wrong photo for Ashley! (George R. Reis)
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