On the Shelf Review – Apprentice to Murder

As part of my ongoing research on The Long-Lost Friend, I kept hearing about the movie Apprentice to Murder.  I finally tracked down a copy through interlibrary loan, not realizing that several cheap DVD copies were available on Amazon.

The movie begins with our protagonist, Billy Kelly (Chad Lowe), living in a small Pennsylvania town.  Given his grueling factory job, his alcoholic father, and the attention of the sinister Lars Hoeglin (Knut Husebe), Billy wants to get to Philadelphia as soon as possible.  He soon comes to the attention of John Reese (Donald Sutherland) and his young housekeeper Alice Spangler (Mia Sara).  Reese teaches Billy how to read and employs him as his assistant in his powwowing exploits.  Despite some initial successes, it becomes clear that Hoeglin’s shadow lies long across Reese, leading to a climactic showdown of good versus evil – or, perhaps, simply the depraved actions of two madmen.

For those who know the story of the Nelson Rehmeyer murder, this will sound quite familiar, and the movie is supposedly based on the famous case. I would say it is fair, for a fictionalized depiction of the events, but there are simply too many differences for it to be an accurate depiction of those events.

The movie’s strong points are Sutherland’s performance as the powwower and the more-or-less accurate portrayal of actual powwowing ceremonies.  (Some of the charms are genuine, but I’ve yet to hear about demonic forces tossing a powwower across the room.)  Nonetheless, the movie drags considerably near the beginning, and Reese is the only fully-fleshed character in the piece.   Husebe also deserves credit for creating a role which is either that of a crotchety old man or a demonic monster, but whose true nature is never explained.

As for the Friend, it is never named in the movie, but it is a key element of the plot.  All of the main powwowers have their own copies, with the famous owl cover, and even the interior shots include actual charms (though I believe some revision went on by the props department).  The book is portrayed as having great power, to the extent that the characters run around brandishing it as if they were Peter Cushing trying to ward off Christopher Lee in an old Hammer film.

If you’re looking for a documentary on powwowing or the Rehmeyer murder, this is hardly it, but if you don’t mind a little real-life magical practice in your entertainment, you should give Apprentice to Murder a look.

Published in: on July 21, 2010 at 4:09 pm  Comments (3)  

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  1. For completeness sake, there is also (sortof) the Twilight Zone episode “Still Valley” based off the short story by Manly Wade Wellman. The original short story used TLLF, one of the spell-binding charms, but crossed out the name of God and replaced it with another. The Twilight Zone episode used a generic prop book titled “Witchcraft.”

  2. The esoteric and paranormal influences in my life were a bit more unusual than most. My descendants (who came to America in 1732) were Ana-Baptists from Switzerland…better known in the New World as the Amish. I am the 13th generation of my family who fled the reformation and persecution.

    The folk healing used in the old Pennsylvania Dutch communities was known as ‘Pow-Wow’. The well-known ‘hex signs’ (Speilwerk) on Amish barns are Pow-Wow symbols used to deter evil spirits. Unlike HooDoo and some other forms of conjuring, Pow-Wow is deeply associated with Christian beliefs.

    The 1988 film ‘Apprentice to Murder’ was based on a true story attributed, in part, to a relative, Nelson Rehmeyer, who practiced Pow-Wow in south-central Pennsylvania.

    My family had deep religious beliefs and prescribed to the long held symbols and customs. Though I’m not a religious person, I am spiritual and continue to keep ‘The Long Lost Friend’ near me…always. It’s my version of a ‘talisman’.

  3. Sorry for necroposting, nut I only reached this interesting movie now (after learning about it from you).

    If it’ll be of any interest for you, the name of the book is actually mentioned in the film, just not spoken. Approx. 82 minutes into the movie, when Reese burns Hoeglin’s book, its cover is shown screen-wide and all the details (of the all-too-familiar LLF) can be seen and read. Yep, it’s called “LLF”.

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