"Apprentice to Murder," which stars Donald Sutherland, doesn't seem to know exactly what kind of movie it wants to be when it grows up. Set in Pennsylvania in 1928, the film was supposedly "inspired" by an incident that actually took place in York, Pa., the hometown of its producer Howard K. Grossman. Grossman, it seems, has been "mesmerized" by the story ever since he was a kid. Mesmerized, eh? Couldn't he have just taken something for that?
The fundamental question in the film is the one posed in the film's ads: "Was it Magic, Murder, or Madness?" The movie involves us in the tale of John Reese (Sutherland), a preacher who dabbles in the occult and practices a little medicine on the side. Reese, whom Sutherland plays as a sort of dinner theater Mark Twain but with a loose screw, draws an impressionable young factory worker, Billy (Chad Lowe), under his influence and, eventually, into a plot to murder a local recluse, whom Reese has singled out, somewhat at random, as a minion of Satan.
Whether he is or is not a minion of Satan is never clear. He certainly looks like one -- but then again he may just be a guy with a beard and a major attitude problem. The hermit's true nature is only one of the film's fuzzy points. The filmmakers take it for granted that we know what Reese's religion, which is called Powwow, is. It appears to be a kind of renegade Christian sect with a little black magic thrown in for good measure. But what is it exactly? A religion? A cult? A dating service? And what is that slender little volume that Reese totes around with him? "The Little Prince?" "The Boy Scout Handbook?"
The question the ad poses is a pretty fair summation of the movie's major problem -- we never know which it is, magic, madness or murder. It could, of course, be something else entirely, like malarkey. The style of the film is, at times, that of a cheapie exploitation flick. But that's not really what it is. At other times, it seems to want to explore the phenomenon of this preacher and his young disciple in a serious manner. And its idea of how to appear serious is to tell the story ploddingly, with a straight face. As the callow son of an alcoholic who assists Reese in the hermit's murder, Chad Lowe is everything that you'd expect Rob Lowe's younger brother to be -- all his talent is in his cheekbones. And about the same can be said for Mia Sara, who plays his girlfriend, a pretty, ambitious young colt whose heart's desire it is to move to Philly and become a typist.
Sutherland, on the other hand, seems to have concentrated all of his energy into his eyebrows. Watching this movie, you think, where did all this brow shrubbery come from? They seem to have taken on a life of their own. Maybe they're Satan's minions. At any rate, they're the scariest things in the movie.
Apprentice to Murder, at area theaters, is rated PG-13 and contains some extremely tame sex scenes.