TABLOID WEEK: Guyana: Cult of the Damned (1979)

René Cardona Jr. didn’t stop with making a softcore porn shark movie with Tintorera…Tiger Shark or the utterly baffling Bermuda Triangle. Now, he’s back to shock you senseless with the kind of true retelling of the Jonestown Massacre, Guyana: Cult of the Damned. He’s no stranger to strangeness — after all, his father made Santa Claus vs. The Devil.

Reverend James Johnson — just pretend they say Jim Jones —  the fanatic and paranoid leader of the Johnson Temple — again, let’s just say People’s Temple — is about to move his 1,000 followers from San Francisco to Johnstown — Jonestown — in the jungle of Guyana, all so he can create a utopia that’s far away from the sins of the rest of th world.

If you know anything of the real tale, Johnson soons gets out of control, inflicting brutal punishment on anyone that dares go against him. He becomes convinced that a conspiracy — the same one that killed both Kennedys, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X — is ready to take him out.

That’s when Congressman Lee O’Brien — Leo Ryan — goes on a fact finding mission and discovers that it’s more like a slave colony than heaven on Earth. And if they don’t get the people out now, they’ll soon go to Russia. By the end of the film, Johnson has unleashed hit squads on the Congressman, the reporters he’s brought along and the defectors they’re saving from Johnson. And that’s when everyone starts drinking the Kool-Aid (for the sake of fact, it may have either been that brand or the generic Flavor Aid, which they camp also had in its supplies; the flavor was grape, in case you’re wondering).

This movie is rife with historical fallacies, but what can you expect from a Mexican grindhouse movie that was released 14 months after the actual incident? You may notice that most of Johnstown was white in this film, while the reality is that most of the People’s Temple members were black. Also, Susan Ames — Susan Amos — is murdered in this movie by a man with a knife, but the truth is that she killed her two youngest children and then herself with a butcher knife and asked her daugher Liane to kill her, then kill herself.

There are two cuts of this, with the Mexican cut adding 8 more minutes of torture and gore, if you’re looking for that kind of thing. I mean, if you’re reading this far, you probably are.

Stuart Whitman (the boxing priest from Demonoid) owns this movie as the Reverend. He’s just chewing the screen up, as he totally should, giving huge speeches and being a maniac. This is like a dream scum movie role and Whitman grips it and wrings all he can out of it. It’s pretty much as perfect casting as you can get.

Gene Barry plays the Congressman, Bradford Dillman (Piranha) plays the doctor of Johnstown, Yvonne De Carlo plays Susan and you even get a special guest appearance by Joesph Cotten! And look out for Hugo Stiglitz from Nightmare City and Nadiuska, who played Conan the Barbarian‘s mom!

There was a later TV movie, Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones, which won Powers Boothe the 1980 Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or a Special. But for my money, I always go with the grindhouse version of things. This is a sordid, grim affair and that’s pretty much why you’re going to watch it.

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