The Reverend James Johnson (Stuart Whitman) has become infamous in a short space of time for what he eventually did to his flock out in the South American country of Guyana, but to go back to the beginning, how did the awful tragedy he was responsible for begin? It started in San Francisco when he was building a strong following at his Christian temple where he would deliver lengthy speeches to the congregation, all about improving themselves by listening to the word of the Lord, but the fact remained he was not part of the more established church, he was running a cult. When he had the idea to take his followers out to the jungle to establish a new town there, they had no notion of what was in store...
The Guyana tragedy was so shocking that even though it made horrified headlines around the world, unlike the Manson tragedy at the other end of the decade there was little in the way of cash-in material to exploit the now-despised hippies who had been "revealed" as violent and dangerous by the acts of the Manson Family, or at least that was how pop culture latched onto the slaughter. In fact, the tales of murderous, never mind suicidal, cults didn’t much take off in the years since the Reverend Jim Jones brought about the execution of his church, with really only this Mexican effort, the TV movie of 1980 and The Sacrament about thirty-five years later that tackled the dreadful events.
When you watch these, you see why, as the news story was so sensational, so indelible in the minds of the world, that viewing a fictionalised version came across as singularly pointless, for what were you going to see but precisely what you expected to happen, and if a recreation of the massacre at the end was all you had to look forward to, it wasn't exactly going to be entertaining. That said, some have found Cult of the Damned to be so shoddy that they garner a few cheap laughs from it, and it was true it managed to make the Jones machinations seem ridiculous in places - note the part where a couple are punished for "fornicating" by the woman forced to have sex with a large, black man in front of everyone, and her partner forced to have homosexual sex the same way (!).
Although these incidents are cut away from before the director and co-writer René Cardona Jr depicted anything too unpleasant, as if telling us they were going to happen but not showing them was enough to please the prurient. What he was a lot more keen on showing was his lead actor Whitman regaling the assembled with speeches, and while the star was fairly creepy in his shades and impassive stony expression as he spouted pious clichés, you can have too much of a bad thing and his Johnson quickly became a bore, within about a minute of his first appearance in fact. Bizarrely, there was a disclaimer at the beginning telling us the names had been changed to protect the innocent, so in what way was Jim Jones innocent exactly? Just one of the egregious elements in a misguided enterprise.
Whitman was backed up with the best cast 1955 had to offer, with such luminaries as Gene Barry as the Congressman investigating the church and not liking what he found, Yvonne De Carlo as the church's public relations representative who manages to get caught up in the final massacre without even being present, and Joseph Cotten and John Ireland as church leaders who make good their escape when events turn deadly. Bradford Dillman was the resident doctor, as well, among a cast peppered with Mexican actors, some of them recognisable from Cardona's other works, as well as that of his like-named father who had also helmed a true life horror tale with Survive! a short time before. If this drawn out and rather tedious effort had anything going for it, this was when the massacre arrived it served to remind you what an unimaginable horror it must have been, and why it was not much capitalised on for entertainment thereafter; it wasn't well done, far from it, yet the sheer grimness of what it depicted was sobering enough in a way that made the filmmakers seem like hypocrites for even considering restaging it.