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{Blu-ray Review} Come In, Children: The Brotherhood of Satan (1971)

“There’s something terribly sick about that town.”

A few years ago, I watched The Brotherhood of Satan while I was filling out my second book of vintage horror movie essays, Revenge of Monsters from the Vault. At the time, I honestly wasn’t expecting much from it, and was very pleasantly surprised.

For those who don’t already know, the 1968 release of Rosemary’s Baby ushered in a wave of Satanism shockers, much as Jaws would largely invent the temporarily booming animal attack subgenre in a few years’ time. Stumbling into theaters throughout the ‘70s, these pictures run a wide gamut when it comes to quality and style, not to mention how closely they follow the Rosemary’s Baby blueprint – to be replaced with the Exorcist blueprint after that film’s runaway success in 1973.

Brotherhood of Satan is wedged right in between the two, and looks and feels less like either of its predecessors or successors than we’ve come to expect, even while all the trappings are eventually here – including hooded cultists and a gigantic, cobweb-enshrouded ankh.

Courtesy of Arrow Video

The unexpected decisions begin before the credits even roll. While Brotherhood of Satan may be a slow burn of a movie, it has one of the wildest cold opens in horror movie history. The production company logos are accompanied by a mechanical screeching and clicking, which turns into a toy tank, which turns into a real tank that crushes a car in an orgy of screaming and edge-of-screen blood.

It’s a good indicator of the weirdness that comes with Brotherhood, a flick of summertime horror set in a sweltering desert town that is filmed with a surprising amount of style, given its often made-for-TV look. The opening few minutes are almost entirely free of dialogue, even as we meet our protagonist and his family. They drive along a picturesque yet desolate freeway accompanied by radio static, which lends the entire sequence an air of tension for no reason that can yet be explained.

Before long, they are trapped in the town of Hillsboro, where no one has been able to leave – and no one but them able to enter – for the past three days, while adults continue to die in gruesome and inexplicable “accidents” and children go missing. By about a third of the way through the picture, we in the audience know what’s going on, even if the characters are still clueless. It seems that Hillsboro is home to a coven of elderly Satanists who are turning the children against their parents, as the tots bring their toys to life to wreak violent havoc on the adults.

I initially got Brotherhood of Satan, sight unseen, as part of a three-pack Blu-ray with Torture Garden and The Creeping Flesh. But it’s definitely the kind of undersung, oddball picture that begs for a fancier release, so I was thrilled when Arrow Video added it to their lineup.

Their Blu-ray contains the usual Arrow bells and whistles, including a reversible sleeve with new and original artwork, interviews and visual essays, a booklet filled with writing about the film, and a new audio commentary with Kim Newman and Sean Hogan.

Courtesy of Arrow VIdeo

Naturally, this oblique, uncanny, ominous, and grim bit of ‘70s Satanic panic has never looked better, and that’s actually saying something. While not as stylishly presented as some other movies of the era, Brotherhood of Satan is filled with some surprisingly atmospheric touches. As user Jon Ursenbach said on Letterboxd, “Every frame of this film is worthy of plastering on a lobby card.”

And that’s not even getting into the picture’s delightfully messed up and incredibly dark ending. What makes Brotherhood of Satan truly extraordinary, though, is how little pedigree it actually has. It was directed by Bernard McEveety – whose filmography does not exactly inspire – and stars mainly a bunch of hard-eyed habitues of Westerns, plus Strother Martin as the world’s most avuncular Satanic leader.

It was co-written and produced by L. Q. Jones, who also plays the sheriff – Jones was, himself, a frequent star of Westerns, having worked extensively with Sam Peckinpah – who would, four years later, direct his only feature film credit, an adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s post-apocalyptic yarn, “A Boy and His Dog.”

And yet, despite all that, the picture is filled to the brim with effective moments, and the crew makes the most of their limited budget. The kill sequences with the toys are often accomplished primarily through suggestion, yet they are never short of spectacular, and the film makes ample use of shadows, diegetic sounds, and old book illustrations to heighten the atmosphere. There’s also a Carnival of Souls-esque dream sequence, an absolutely chilling (pun intended) ice house filled with corpses, and the Satanists enjoy a truly great lair, complete with that aforementioned cobweb-festooned ankh.