Saturday, September 15, 2012

Split Image and my love of doomsday cults

Recently I wrote about about Poltergeist, a film I saw in 1982 that had a great affect on me. Split Image is also from 1982 but it did not have the same kind of subconscious impact on me after I watched it. In fact, I'd sort of forgotten I'd even seen this when I went to a late night screening of it at Cinefamily a few weeks ago. I was lured to the theatre by a couple of things: film about joining a cult, the fetching Karen Allen in the cast and a young, mustached James Woods as a de-programmer. When the film began, I suddenly realized that I'd seen the film sometime in 1983 on our satellite dish and that I not only remembered it, I also had really liked it when I saw it as a 14 year old.

Guess what? Nearly thirty years later and I still love Split Image! It's one of the films that the 1970s/1980s are notorious for and why those two decades are a treasure trove for lovers of cult cinema. Directed by the eclectic Ted Kotcheff [this man directed First Blood AND Weekend at Bernie's!] and starring Michael O'Keefe as an impressionable kid named "Danny" who gets sucked into a cult by a girl [since it's Karen Allen, I can't really blame him, I might be tempted into a cult by her and those freckles] and then gets completely brainwashed by Peter Fonda [now that's easy casting]. Soon after he hangs out a few hours at the compound, he's cut off his hair, has a new name ["Joshua", nice cult name], rejecting his parents and out scrounging for money and/or new members around town. Boy, was he an easy mark. Naturally Mom and Dad [Brian Dennehy/Elizabeth Ashley] aren't too keen on "Danny" [err, "Joshua"] giving up the suburban life so they hire a de-programmer [Woods] to get their son back.

Can I tell you how awesome Split Image is? Just watch the trailer above for 30 seconds that hint at the greatness. It's got everything you'd want in an early 1980s film about joining a cult: vague new-agey sermons, blissfully happy youths full of energy and positivity as they live on their compound, cultish ceremonies, mind control, an angry de-programmer played by an actor who is chewing scenery like its nobody's business [Woods, of course], kidnappings, intense scenes of breaking down the cult's grip on "Danny," a star-crossed romance between young people who are unfortunately in a cult, gymnastics. Yes, don't forget the gymnastics.  Split Image is as much pure 100% fun a serious drama about kids joining cults and then getting out of them could be.

James Woods in this era was becoming known for over-the-top, go-for-broke performances and that's the case for him in Split Image. For example, one year later Woods would star in David Cronenberg's Videodrome. He's so wired in this it's like he's either channeling a wild animal or so loaded on cocaine that the coil is too tight and I'm not sure where the acting begins and ends. Virtually every line that Woods utters in this is pure gold. Here's two video clips of Woods from Split Image that will give you a taste of what he was going for. Note in the first clip the unusual choice by Woods to take his sock off and fan his sweaty foot while engaging in a strange conversation about the greedy aspirations of youths. Second clip has Woods unleashing an infamous line about some of the food the cult members are forced to eat. Enjoy and thank me in the comments section.

When I saw Split Image in 1983, I'd already become kind of interested in cults thanks to growing up the cult hotbed decade that was the 1970s. I was already aware of the Unification Church [known as "Mooneys" to me], the Manson Family and the big one for me, the People's Temple. In 1978 when the People's Temple leader Jim Jones unleashed a mass-suicide [or forced suicide and/or full-on murder rampage] in the jungles of Jonestown, Guyana, 913 people died, including 270 children. This was obviously a big story and it was on every news station, paper and I remember sermons about it at my Southern Baptist church that I frequented. Then in 1980 I saw the CBS TV movie called Guyana Tragedy and watched transfixed as Powers Boothe delivered an epic performance as Jim Jones. 

My life long interest in cults was cemented on this night in April 1980 and it has not wavered since. Heaven's Gate, Branch Dividians, Scientologists, Raelism, Aum Shinrikyo, Solar Temple, Chen Tao, Children of God and on and on. I'm particularly interested in doomsday cults for whatever reason--give me something about a doomsday cult and I get a little bit giddy. I shouldn't confess this on a film blog but in 1993 I was kind of rooting for the Branch Davidians to hold-out agains the ATF during the deadly siege. I'm just weird like that for cults. 

Split Image doesn't have a doomsday element, but it is a mainstream Hollywood film about a young guy joining a cult and then getting de-programmed and in 1983, in the era before the internet, before we had information at our fingertips with stories and video, seeing something like this was not only very powerful, it was extremely entertaining. Nearly thirty years later, Split Image is still entertaining if not quite as powerful. How could it not be with James Woods chewing up dialogue, the lovely Karen Allen as a cult member and gymnastics. Yes, gymnastics. 

***If you are reading this post via e-mail, the imbedded videos in this post might not work with your particular e-mail account. Click on the post title and you will be taken directly to CineRobot to view these wonderfully curated clips!***

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