By Jerome Reuter
On November 18, 1978, over 900 followers of Jim Jones committed mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana. Many questions surrounding the events are left unanswered. How did one man have so much control over his followers? What drove this utopian community to murder a US congressman, and take their own lives? To this day, many people, including myself, have a bizarre fascination with this man.
Although much is known about the events of that hot day in 1978, many wonder what went on behind the walls of Jonestown. We also wonder what drove one man in a downward spiral, taking his flock with him. Through eyewitness accounts, and an audio recording of the mass suicide, we have a general picture of what occurred. However, when a tragedy of this magnitude occurs, it’s only a matter of time before someone makes an attempt to adapt it to film. Which brings us to 1979’s Guyana: Cult Of The Damned.
This film is essentially part historical fact, but mostly an exploitation film. The main focus is on the events of Jonestown, and the subsequent investigation that was launched. Many of the sequences follow in chronological order with what happened.However, they’re presented much more like a grindhouse picture than an educational film or documentary.
The first thing one notices is the alteration of titles and names. For example, our lead is Reverend James Johnson, the leader of ‘Johnsontown.’ The film begins with the fiery minister informing his congregation that they’re relocating to South America. This leaves out a huge part of the backstory behind Jones. When his congregation was located in San Francisco, they played a huge role in the surrounding community. Jones was known as a close ally of the civil rights and free speech movements, and highly respected among many high ranking politicians. It was only when rumors began to surface about corruption within the congregation, that Jones paranoia got the better of him. This was the driving inspiration for defecting to Guyana.
Which brings me to the events that take place in Johnsontown. Johnson is portrayed as a sadistic tyrant, who goes to great lengths to control his flock. Although this is true, and Jones’ paranoia DID lead to him keeping a strict rule over his followers, here it’s the primary focus. Very little attention is placed on the people attempting to build a utopian community. That’s the real tragedy of Jonestown, ordinary people being deceived by a madman.
We’re given scenes of him punishing children for stealing food, and a couple publicly humiliated for having intercourse. These do very little to add to the story, and instead take this film into exploitation territory.
The one thing this film does manage to capture is Jones’ erratic behavior. We see someone who’s a control freak, and completely lost touch with the outside world. If you look at this as just a character study of Jim Jones, it’s not that far from the truth. We gradually see his complete detachment from reality, which lead to this real life tragedy.
The films final act is the mass suicide of the congregation. This is a scene that literally goes on for over 20 minutes. If you’ve ever sat down with the audio recording, you’ll understand that it follows the final moments very accurately. From followers begging to be spared, to Jones telling his followers to ‘lay down their lives with dignity.’ You get the sense that many people are still lead by blind faith, while others don’t have the courage to speak against their leader. On one hand, you feel pity for these people being forced to end their lives prematurely one someone else’s order. On the other, you can’t help but feel this is Darwinism in its purest form.
Despite the fact that this one reeks of exploitation, it’s still an interesting watch. I can safely say that I’ve seen worse.