Monday, August 28, 2023

"And Your Perspective on Adolf Hitler...Interesting" - Heartland of Darkness (1992)

Let us voyage to the wilds of Ohio to explore the complex and recently rediscovered Satanist film Heartland of Darkness (1992) aka Blood Church aka Fallen Angels. 

Of course, some of your universe's critics have tepid feelings about Heartland of Darkness. For example, reviewer El_Bustin writes, "Who would have thought that a satanic panic movie could be sooo boring." Reviewer D Edward writes, "It lacks the mystery to warrant so much lollygagging about." And reviewer hiruko writes, "I couldn’t figure out of this movie is just plain bad or a self aware goof."

Read on for a more nuanced appreciation of Heartland of Darkness...

As do nearly all films, the film begins with someone being chased through the forest. In this case, the chasee is a bespectacled man carrying an envelope, while the chasers are various people with flashlights, all of whom wear sunglasses at night. The man is quickly caught and the envelope retrieved. “Where are the negatives?” asks one of the chasers. Of course, the chasee does not turn them over, so he is strung up on a tree and stabbed with a small steak knife.

The film proper begins with an unpleasant shot of a dead raccoon in the town of Copperton, Ohio. Paul Henson and his college-age daughter Christine are reopening the town newspaper, the Copperton Chronicle, and they hire a secretary named Evelyn and a reporter named Shannon within seconds of each other (not at all suspiciously). Just as quickly, Paul runs outside to harass the Sheriff as he walks by. Unfortunately for Paul, the Sheriff has no news for him, and Paul gets angry about this. The Sheriff mirrors that anger: “You people are all the same, aren’t you? You think you can just walk all over people to get a scoop! God damn bloodsuckers!” Then he adds calmly, “Kid found a body out by the Daly place. Guy’s been dead a couple hours. I’m heading out there now. Find your own damn ride.”

Of course, Shannon and Paul find the crime scene, where someone has been eviscerated.

Shannon refuses to go near the corpse so Paul says, possibly insensitively, “Hey, it’s okay. He’s a John Doe. They don’t even know who he is.”

“It’s nothing,” she replies ambiguously.

Back at the office, Shannon shows Paul photographs of the corpse they just investigated. She doesn’t believe the man was killed because of drugs, which was the Sheriff’s conclusion. “Paul, I’ve done a lot of drug follow-ups and this doesn’t look like anything on that order. Take a look at the marks on the leg. The entry point. That’s not even torture. It’s more like…God, I don’t know.” Although she doesn’t explain what on earth a “drug follow-up” might be, Paul encourages her to chase the story.

Then Paul visits the nearby grocery store to buy a light bulb, where he encounters Reverend Donavan, the town minister. Even though Paul mentions that he and his daughter don’t “really go to church,” the reverend tells them he expects to see them in church.

The filmmakers then reveal disturbing details about the town of Copperton: Reverend Donavan meets a young woman (played by Linnea Quigley) wearing revealing black clothing in the local cemetery. After giving her a necklace, he and the young woman discuss what sounds like a diabolical plan. “Copperton has several new arrivals,” he says. “Inquisitive and fresh. They must be integrated.”

The woman smiles. “The shepherd must increase his flock.”

“Don’t challenge my authority, Julia.”

“I wouldn’t think of it. Your control is firm, Reverend. You should have no fear from me.”

“I want their souls,” he admits, and the two kiss passionately in the middle of the cemetery. He then removes her black dress.

At the church on Sunday, Paul and Christine indeed attend services, where Reverend Donavan welcomes them to the community. Speaking in a notably sinister manner, the minister gives a sermon about discipline. “I speak today about discipline. Discipline of all of us, not just the smaller members of our society.” He glances at a row of pregnant women sitting at the back of the church. Glaring at his parishioners, the young reverend says, “By discipline, I mean the complete refusal to tolerate anyone who tries to infect us with the disease of their own ideas.”

Paul squirms uncomfortably in his seat, but his daughter Christine smiles.

Reverend Donavan leans forward and raises his hand authoritatively (one might almost compare his manner to Adolf Hitler’s). “We have the power to control our own destiny. And we must not let others take that away from us. We must not disappoint the Master when he returns to inherit his kingdom.”

Shannon, meanwhile, goes to the library to research true crime, but she finds the library books redacted. She asks the librarian why the pages have been marked up and the librarian replies sinisterly, “Protection.”

“Protection? From what?”


Shannon backs out of the library fearfully.

When Paul visits the local hardware store to get a typewriter ribbon, he stumbles into a storage room full of red crosses and, horrifically, what appears to be a black cat nailed to a board.

On his way back to the newspaper office, Paul literally runs into the reverend’s friend Julia (or more accurately, he runs into her cleavage), who introduces herself as Christine’s teacher. “Call me Julia, Paul…anytime,” she says as she walks away.

In a quick scene demonstrating that the filmmakers don’t want the audience to be lost or confused, the reverend, dressed in black leather and wearing black sunglasses, leads a gang to the hardware store to punish the proprietor for leaving his storeroom unlocked.

At the newspaper office, Shannon shows Paul several books she found documenting nearby towns where Satanists killed various people. (It is never explained how Shannon got the books, as the library books were redacted, or why the books have such childish illustrations apparently drawn with magic markers.)

Another grotesque corpse is found in a field, this one of a teenage girl who told Reverend Donavan she was going away to college. The Sheriff yells at Paul, telling him his muckraking story on Satanists is getting people killed. Paul sees a scar-tissue cross on the girl’s wrist, similar to a marking on Julia’s wrist as well as the book illustration.

Paul and Shannon visit the district attorney, who is just as dismissive of the Satanist idea as everyone else in town. “I can’t really help you guys. I think you’re jumping to conclusions.”

Paul rockets out of his seat. “Conclusions? For Christ’s sakes, sir, you have two people, one of them a teenage girl, hacked up and you think it’s all related to drugs? You’re crazy!”

As Paul yells at the DA, Shannon notices a bizarre Satanic skull on the man’s desk.

When Paul sees the skull, which is clearly evidence the DA is a Satanist, he says, “You got lousy taste in paperweights, Counselor.”

That night, Paul and Shannon watch a TV news report indicating a hospital was broken into and all twelve babies in the maternity ward were kidnapped.

The next day, a man introducing himself as Reverend Kane visits the newspaper office to give Paul and Shannon helpful information. He delivers one of cinema’s great monologues: “I’ve spent my life traveling to hundreds of towns like Copperton. Small, tiny spots on the map that no one seems to ever pay any attention to, except when something bizarre occurs, something no one can explain. Some label it druggies, hippies, freaks. But they all have something in common, a basic common element of pure evil. Malicious intent? Oh yes, quite. Only their intent goes much deeper and darker than others ever imagined. A Satanic cult? Very interesting. Someone here finally has the courage to speak up.” He also tells them that a man named Dobson killed infants in Copperton ten years earlier. “The local police labeled it a simple case of sick insanity, but it went much deeper than that. If you truly have this type of situation here, I’ll be able to identify it.”

Paul, Shannon, and Kane visit Dobson in the local prison. (Oddly, Kane called the man “good old black Dobson,” but Dobson is a white man.) Perhaps predictably, Dobson is not forthcoming. He also has a painfully deep voice. “Where is the holy place?” Reverend Kane asks the killer.

Dobson spits on Kane, not giving our protagonists any useful information. They leave quickly, allowing Dobson to mumble “I didn’t tell them anything” to an unseen presence in his cell.

While Shannon returns to the library, Paul and Kane investigate the local quarry, where the older gentleman Kane has a great deal of trouble climbing down a hill of dirt, receiving no help at all from Paul. They find a sacrificial altar out in the open in the quarry.

Although the bones are mostly animal skulls, and one adult human hand, Reverend Kane concludes that newborn babies were sacrificed to Satan. “This happens all the time, all over. Usually it’s an isolated case. Police figure one of the parents took it. Never like this. Never.”

Paul picks up a damaged pair of sunglasses while Kane says he wants to speak to the local preacher (whom Paul calls a psycho). They visit the church with Shannon and find that Reverend Donavan is, subtly, wearing his crucifix upside-down.

Reverend Donavan, instead of playing dumb or attempting to hide anything, confronts Reverend Kane. “My church obeys the rules I create. Not some long-ago superstitious ideology that speaks of right and wrong, good and evil. The church is the creation of its believers, not the other way around.” As he takes his leave, he quotes Isaiah: “And they shall go forth and look upon the dead bodies of the men that have rebelled against me, for their worms shall not die, their fires shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”

At the (peculiarly empty) high school, Christine is approached by her teacher (whose full name is Julia Francine), who asks about Christine’s perceptions of the local curriculum. “I never heard of Aleister Crowley or his works. And your perspective on Adolf Hitler and his position on complete authority. Interesting.”

Julia tries to recruit Christine to the town’s beliefs. “Tell me, Christine, Wouldn’t you want to be one of us? Control your own destiny. Dominate others. See your dreams and fantasies come to life before your very eyes?”

In a frightening scene, Shannon and Paul find out the mayor is part of the Satanist cult when Shannon leads through a copy of the Bible, all the pages of which are completely blank!

Back at the newspaper office, Paul, Shannon, and Reverend Kane helpfully discuss their new theory that the town is full of Satanists led by Reverend Donavan. They are unaware the room is bugged and Donavan is listening, along with the other town bigwigs. 

Later, Reverend Donavan and his shades-wearing cohorts force the DA to inject himself with something that appears dangerous and painful. “Put it in your arm,” the reverend orders, perhaps referencing the classic Dead and Buried (1981), “or we’ll put it in your eye!” (He puts it in his arm, though some audience members might argue perhaps he could have escaped his situation, given that his tormentors handed him the only weapon in the room.)

The same night, Paul has a heartfelt talk with Christine in her bedroom, where Paul appears incapable of not stroking his daughter’s hair for the length of their conversation.

Soon after, Reverend Kane confronts Reverend Donavan in the church. Donavan, tossing away a book, quips, “Aleister Crowley. A man well ahead of his time. A great Satanist, but a poor leader of souls.”

When Kane calls him a sick, pathetic creature, Donavan responds eloquently (and accurately), “Innocent people have died all over the world at different times in history.”

Kane pulls out a handgun, but one of Donavan’s henchmen hits the poor old man with a baseball bat. Kane stumbles out of the church while Donavan laughs. Outside, Kane is chased by the henchmen, now wearing cloaks as well as sunglasses, until the Satanists stop him. Donavan lifts the old man with one hand, telling him, “You’ll be our latest sacrifice. But don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of company. Tell your God about me. Warn him!”

“You’ll rot in Hell!”

“How exciting.” Donavan slits Kane’s throat with a small knife.

After a sensitive scene in a car where Paul explains to Shannon that his wife was killed by a drunk driver (this leads off course to a deep kiss), Paul returns home. Even though he is afraid the Satanists are all around, he falls asleep and has a dream in which Shannon strangles him while Christine watches. He wakes up in his real house, which is oddly full of boxes of a snack called Tato Skins, only to be surprised by Julia Francine entering his home. She tries to entice him to join the Satanist cult by pressing his hand to her breast, but he tells her to leave and then pulls a rifle from his closet to guard himself and his daughter.

The next day, Reverend Kane’s body is discovered. The Sheriff gives Paul the dead man’s coat and hat, inside of which Paul finds hidden a strip of photo negatives. Through means too complex to reiterate here, Paul and Shannon discover that the man from the film’s opening somehow passed the negatives on to Reverend Kane. Naturally, Paul and Shannon quickly strip each other and have sex.

Paul drives to Columbus to show photos of the dead bodies to the state attorney general, who believes the photos are sufficient evidence to put Donavan away. Paul also meets with an ex-Satanist at a bar, but the former cult member, after telling Paul the conspiracy goes as high as the attorney general, is shot in the head by a man wearing dark glasses. Paul takes the photos and runs away, stumbling past more brick buildings than one might believe existed. When he reaches his car, he finds himself in a medium-speed car chase with a pickup equipped with a camper shell. When he stops at a diner to call for help, he is assaulted by a shirtless man wearing sunglasses and wielding a blowtorch.

Paul defends himself by shoving his face into the shirtless man’s chest and then somehow throwing the man through a window. Then Paul races back to Copperton, where he finds his house ransacked, the walls covered with inverted crosses painted in red. Christine is also gone.

Paul drives to the church. Reverend Donavan says Christine is waiting for her daddy, then, in what can only be interpreted as some kind of cryptic double entendre, adds, “I’d offer you a glass of lemonade but…we’re still squeezing out the juice.”

Reverend Donavan is joined by everyone in the entire town, plus the state attorney general (who, apropos of nothing, admits that only the governor has not been turned into a Satanist), but they allow Paul to get back into his car. He drives to the newspaper office but the building blows up. Then Paul finds the Sheriff and tells him that Donavan is responsible for the various murders. The Sheriff, apparently not part of the cult, believes Paul instantly.

The Sheriff finds Reverend Donavan in the church and attempts to arrest the preacher. However, the Sheriff has not accounted for the fact that dozens of Satanists and robes are standing behind Donavan, wielding steak knives. They make short work of the Sheriff.

Meanwhile, Paul and Shannon take a bus back to Columbus, where they barge into the governor’s office and convince him of the Satanist conspiracy using pictures and a recording of the attorney general. The governor gets on the phone and orders someone to put together a grand jury, and the governor will join them in a minute. 

After they leave the capitol building, however, a sniper shoots the governor. Paul sees Reverend Donavan get into a 1970s van and drive away before the state police take Paul and Shannon into custody to interrogate them. Paul pleads for people to help them (actually, he pushes over a table and berates them with profanity, but in any case he is successful.)

The climactic sequence involves Donavan’s black mass, set to culminate in the sacrifice of Paul’s daughter Christine at the quarry.

The ceremony is interrupted by Shannon reciting the Lord’s Prayer, and also by Paul holding a shotgun. Paul shoots one of the Satanists, and then a helicopter flies in with state police to rescue the protagonists. In the confrontation that ensues, Donovan says, “See you in Hell” and drops into a stream, disappearing.

Shockingly, however, the evil reverend is not dead! In what appears to be the denouement, the police lock Christine in a car. A state trooper shoots Shannon and the police drive away with a horrified Christine. In the end, Paul breaks into the church to find Reverend Donavan, dressed as a policeman, preparing to sacrifice Christine on the altar by hacksawing her throat. In the expertly choreographed chase and fight that ensue, Paul allows Donavan to fall from a second-story balcony. The reverend is impaled upon a cross and dies.

Paul and Christine site on top of the church’s altar, relieved the villain has been defeated.

In addition to Linnea Quigley, Heartland of Darkness features Nick Baldasare, star of Jay Woelfel's excellent Beyond Dream's Door (1989), as Reverend Donavan in a performance that can only be described as unforgettable. Mr. Baldasare throws caution and self-consciousness to the wind as the evil reverend, making it clear from the very beginning that Reverend Donavan worships Satan and Satan alone. Some might complain that lack of subtlety is a weakness of the film, but to any experienced cinephile the film's lack of subtlety is clearly its greatest strength. Instead of hiding the antagonist's plot or casting doubts about which characters are Satanists and which are simply incompetent townspeople, the filmmakers are sure to make everything perfectly clear in every scene and sequence. Nobody left the film confused or wondering about what was going on, and that is one of the highest compliments a critic can pay to a film.

It must also be mentioned that Ohio-based Jay Woelfel contributed a good deal to Heartland of Darkness, providing its musical score and performing as the ill-fated journalist chased by Satanists. Lovers of horror cinema must give thanks again for the presence of Mr. Woelfel, and for his many contributions to the genre.