The first of two ripped-from-the-headlines dramatizations about the Jonestown massacre that occurred in November 1978, when Peoples Temple leader Rev. Jim Jones compelled nearly 1,000 followers to commit suicide by drinking poison, Guyana: Cult of the Damned is low-budget sleze presenting the most lurid aspects of the Jonestown incident clumsily and without context. Even co-writer/director René Cardona Jr.’s efforts to fictionalize the story are laughable—Guyana: Cult of the Damned features “Rev. James Johnson” and his followers at “Johnsontown.” Cardona neglects to develop interesting supporting characters, and he presents Johnson (Stuart Whitman) as a one-note psychopath. So, if you’re looking for a somewhat responsible examination of the history behind the massacre, seek out the 1980 TV miniseries Guyana Tragedy: The True Story of Jim Jones (1980), which features a spectacular leading performance by Powers Boothe. That film isn’t perfect, either, but it’s a world away from this exploitive treatment.
Still, Guyana: Cult of the Damned is quasi-watchable within its lowbrow parameters. Cardona’s movie constructs a simplified narrative that transports Johnson and his followers from America to French Guyana within the movie’s first 10 minutes; as a result, Guyana: Cult of the Damned is essentially a thriller illustrating how a crusading U.S. Congressman tried and failed to save people from Johnson’s planned apocalypse. The Congressman in the movie, “Lee O’Brien”—played by Gene Barry—is a fictionalized version of real-life San Francisco politician Leo Ryan, who was killed in Guyana by Jones’ operatives.
Cardona’s movie features lurid depictions of Johnson sermonizing to his people and occasionally supervising their torture; this lopsided depiction accentuates the horrors of what really happened in Guyana without exploring the more troubling nuances of why so many people fell under a self-proclaimed messiah’s spell. Nonetheless, it’s impossible not to generate tension when presenting a story filled with so much danger, and once things turn deadly in the jungle, Guyana: Cult of the Damned becomes darkly exciting. Using an eerie synthesizer score to pull together handheld, jittery shots of ghastly things like mothers force-feeding poison to their babies, Cardona’s climax captures the scope of a modern-day holocaust. As for Whitman’s fire-breathing performance, the actor is effective when simulating the demonic aspects of the real man’s charisma, but that’s the only note he plays.
Guyana: Cult of the Damned: FUNKY