The opening title sequence of writer/director Patrick O’Bell’s The Blessed Ones is a quick cutting montage of unsettling stock footage, wherein various known cult groups of the last century perform their rituals of worship.
The eery imagery pulled from actual events sets an uncomfortable tone that The Blessed Ones attempts to live up to during it’s 79 minute run time, with a fictional tale of rogue members on the run from the leadership of a suicidal cult.
With The Blessed Ones, O’Bell has opted for a film structure similar to The Usual Suspects as a man named Spencer tells his tale of escaping The Polaris Society while being interrogated by police. The mystery as to how Spencer came to be entangled with the spacey leader, Elyon and his eventual choice to go on the run with a female member of the group named Ursa is told out of sequence so as to heighten the tension of the final reveal. However the journey to that point is fraught with peril for the viewer, as well as the protagonists.
Having recently viewed several documentaries about cults and finding myself genuinely frightened by them, I can see why O’Bell would choose this phenomenon as inspiration. Programs such as the PBS documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of The Peoples Temple showed how one charismatic leader like the horrifying Jim Jones can twist people’s beliefs towards blind faith in a human idol, causing them to perform heinous acts against others and ultimately themselves.
Currently on Stitcher’s Heaven’s Gate podcast produced by Pineapple Street Media, the layers of mystery surrounding why someone would join a cult are being stripped away by host, Glynn Washington, himself a former indoctrinated member of a Doomsday cult. These interviews with past Heaven’s Gate members and families of those who committed suicide at the urging of Marshall Applewhite are humanizing the individuals in a news story that ultimately became a punch line about “Not drinking the Kool-Aid”.
While connections to the latter tale of people seeking to leave their bodies through suicide to join an alien race beyond the stars is evident in The Blessed Ones, the terror promised by the film’s marketing is not. Neither the cast, nor the filmmaker are able to convey a true sense of dread or sympathy for the plight of its characters, instead we are shown a series of events with no emotional stakes.
For example, Elyon’s right hand man Draco is constantly intimidating, pursuing and attacking less faithful members of The Polaris Society while looking like an extra from Sons of Anarchy. We are given no understanding as to whether he is a believing member of the cult or simply a hired enforcer that’s in it for the money. The actor, Jonathan Erickson Eisley, has ruggedly intense look about him, but even taken as a Terminator like killing machine, he fails to inspire fear. All you know is that if he’s on screen, someone is about to die.
Though her face is on the poster, the less said about Tamzin Brown’s character of Ursa the better. Revealed to be an undercover agent infiltrating the cult, we receive no personal information to invest us in the character. Whether she is seen running endlessly in the California wilderness with Spencer or escaping the cult compound, she is simply a body in motion and the few moments in which Brown tries to emote fall terribly flat, so perhaps the character was doomed to fail in conception.
It’s also sad that the cult leader, Elyon as played by Dave Vescio lacks the charisma we would expect from someone who is successfully collecting followers. There is no seduction in his performance, instead Elyon is presented as a harsh dictator, rather than an idealistic prophet that gains people’s devotion. More convincing in the role would have been Michael O’Hare Wallace, who plays the mental deprogrammer, John Miranti in the film.
The director actually introduces the Miranti character through a mini-documentary that interrupts the narrative plot by intercutting faux archival footage in a news expose style in order to raise doubts as to this professional’s true intentions. Wallace’s presence during his few moments on screen provide us with a feeling of uncertainty that would have been better used in developing the Elyon character.
While the film unfortunately focuses very little on the true horror of cult indoctrination, which would have been to its benefit, it does get one believable moment from it’s lead actor, Andy Gates. The scene involves Spencer soliciting donations door to door and talking to an obviously sad woman alone in her home. Spencer’s earnest belief in how The Polaris Society has improved his life wins over his host, who decides to attend one of their seminars. It is the one time that Gates annoyingly smug performance is replaced with a manipulative sincerity, revealing what makes cult recruiters most effective.
Ultimately, The Blessed Ones fails to be a satisfying drama or mystery. If the performances were believable, the low budget nature of The Blessed Ones could have worked in its favor. The amateurish camera work and poor audio mixing could have made it feel more like a Blair Witch style documentary pulled from found footage. Instead the limited range of its actors calls attention to the low budget production, making the viewer realize very quickly that the shoddy aesthetic was not an intentional choice.
As mentioned previously, documentaries using footage of real cult related tragedies can be an unforgettably horrifying experience and perhaps that’s where the The Blessed Ones lost it’s way. By attempting to frame itself as a clever crime drama with a twist ending, it misses the point of what makes explorations into these isolated sects engaging. Truth be told, an actual seminar of The Polaris Society would likely be more entertaining than this film turned out to be.
Written and directed by Patrick O’Bell, it stars Andy Gates, Tamzin Brown, Dave Vescio, Michael O’Hare Wallace and Jonathan Erickson Eisley.