The film Guyana: Cult of the Damned (or also known as Guyana: Crime of the Century) was a 1979 film produced, directed, and written by René Cardona Jr and distributed by Universal Pictures. It was filmed in Acapulco, Guerrero, Mexico; Guyana; and San Francisco. It starred Stuart Whitman as Reverend James Johnson and Gene Barry as Congressman Lee O’Brien. The names were changed in the film as the event had only taken place a few months prior to filming. It was not released in the US until January 27, 1980 and made $1,668,965, internationally it made $3,798,102 at the box office.
Portrayal of Murder-Suicides:
This movie took just about every measure it could to ensure it was seen as a horror film; putting it’s depiction of Jim Jones next to the worst monsters imaginable (such as the Devil himself), and each Temple member innocent in their fullest capability. The movie took almost no steps to show compliance in the “revolutionary suicide” scene: within the first minute of the act, it portrayed the mothers screaming to let their children go, the younger kids squirming to be free of the gunned men pouring the liquids down their mouths, and a woman bracing against her will, the cyanide dumped into her pleading mouth. The act was prefaced by more tragic scenes of a woman at the airplane screaming over dead bodies, watching armed Temple members circle her like vultures, preparing to murder her next. The members of the Temple who agreed with Jones in their deaths were not depicted as rational, normal people, yet rather those who had completely lost their minds. Brainwashed would be an attempt at a proper way to put it, but it almost doesn’t cover the full extent of their actions: it would almost be better to say these members belonged in the back, unreachable corners of a mental asylum. During the death scene, it showed people falling to the ground in droves, the screaming relentless. They took care in making sure to show women, children, and elderly drinking the mix first. A black woman clung to a post and screamed at the top of her lungs how badly she did not want to die. Hardly anyone took the drink by choice; most of them were held in headlocks by multiple other members, struggling to get free to no avail. People did not sit with their loved ones to pass, every single person was shown standing, to then crumple to their death. It was not shown as a mass suicide; it attempted to show each and every death as a murder.
Portrayal of the Concerned Relatives:
The first mention of the Concerned Relatives in the film comes after a string of negative events in Jonestown. Members are portrayed working in the fields, trying to escape from the hot days of labor. Three young boys are caught trying to steal food because they are hungry, and Jones roasts them in front of the entire Temple, asking their parents and eventually the whole crowd what should happen. Everyone’s response is ‘punish them,’ and the children are subjected to physical punishment. These events all lead up to the mention of the Concerned Relatives’ report. In the scene mentioning the concerned relatives, a few members are in Jones’ office – a woman begins talking about negative reports coming in, and says that 75 concerned family members have filed a report claiming that Jones was creating Jonestown as something that would become a concentration camp – in the scene, Jones is livid and goes off about how people are publishing lies about himself, and demands that the members all write to relatives to clear the air. He forcefully demands that they allow him to view the letters beforehand, though. It is clear from each of these elements that Jones is threatened by the Concerned Relatives, because he believes they have some claims that are based in fact and could bring down the PT. Jones is portrayed as making an action plan to basically cover his ass and hide the fact that he knows he is mistreating others. The Concerned Relatives are portrayed as a group who has the best interests of their family members at heart and has at least some sort of proof that the temple is mistreating the members – because this comes after the mentions of lack of food, physical punishment of children, etc. the audience would infer that the relatives were trying to save or rescue their family members, and Jones was actively trying to put on a pure and innocent front.
Portrayal of Jim Jones:
The way the film portrays Jim Jones was exaggerated from real life. The films Jones, James Johnson focused more on the religious aspect then the real Jim Jones would have. Also, the amount of control James Johnson had to have was ridiculous, for example when Johnson subjugates the children who stole food to torture via a snake pit, repeatedly dunking another kid underwater, and electrically shocking the oldest kid. Not only that but Johnson asks the parents what should happen to their children, to which they reply punish them, giving Johnson more control as to how to handle them. Then there is the scene where everybody is dying and Johnson is speaking. At this moment of the film, Johnson’s face is distorted and against a red background, and with the screams of the people dying in the background. Given the amount of time the film had along with how it glosses over their time in the states and jumps right into Guyana it would have been difficult getting an accurate depiction on Jim Jones.
Guyana: Cult of the Damned had very mixed reviews in its reception. As a tragic incident that lacked a formal explanation at this point in time, the film was showcased as nothing more than a poorly produced horror movie with a mere 5 star rating on IMDB. It is clear that the main motivation of this film was not to explain the Temple or the members, but rather exploit the tragedy and make a few dollars. A review done by Roger Ebert in January of 1980, shortly after the film was released in the United States, explains his distaste for the film: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/guyana-cult-of-the-damned-1980.