Mormonism‘s answer to “Reefer Madness” is back, in a remake of a notorious 1922 silent movie – about LDS missionaries luring innocent women by hypnosis – that even exceeds the original’s campy silliness.
What kind of excess? Three words: Polygamous zombie vampires.
It’s all in fun, says the director of the new “Trapped by the Mormons” – though there is a message, too.
“It’s a satire of bigotry against Mormons, plain and simple,” said director Ian Allen, who will premiere his film Friday in Washington, D.C.
“Trapped by the Mormons” tells of Nora Prescott, a naive British woman lured into danger by the LDS missionary Isoldi Keene, a caped figure whose mesmeric gaze hypnotizes her and her steno-pool friends into becoming his brides to be taken home to Salt Lake City.
Today the original looks ridiculous, vilifying Mormons as hysterically as “Reefer Madness” demonized marijuana. But in 1922, the British public believed the message of “Trapped by the Mormons,” which was based on the writings of anti-Mormon crusader Winifred Graham.
Late church president Ezra Taft Benson was a missionary in England in the 1920s, “and he ran into trouble from the film being shown,” said Hunter Hale, president of the Organ Loft, which screens silent movies for Utah audiences. “When they found out [the missionaries] were Mormons, they didn’t want to have anything to do with them, because of the film.”
Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, in a 1989 speech at Brigham Young University, cited Benson’s journal from Jan. 10, 1922: ” ‘Winifred Graham on our track again.’ The next day Elder Benson was evicted from one house, and a week later still ‘more stories of the terrible Mormons were being circulated.’ On Sunday, Jan. 29, someone attempted to break up one of their meetings. A week later he wrote, ‘Tracting in South Street, women rather excited, afraid they’re going to be taken to Utah.’ “
The LDS Church isn’t taking the new “Trapped by the Mormons” too seriously. Spokesman Scott Trotter said, “Considering how inaccurate the last one was, we can’t imagine this one’s going to be any better.”
The original was revived in 1992 at the Tower Theatre with live music by Organ Loft accompanist Blaine Gale. “I told Blaine, ‘Don’t camp it up when you play the music. Play it real, because the film’s campy enough,’ ” Hale said. The Organ Loft last screened “Trapped by the Mormons” in 1999, and the Tower has a VHS copy on its rental shelves.
Allen, 31, who moved from Salt Lake City at age 15 and left the LDS Church a year or two later, first saw “Trapped by the Mormons” five years ago. The movie, he said, featured an extreme form of the anti-Mormon sentiments he experienced after leaving Utah.
“They say, ‘Where are you from?’ and I say, ‘Salt Lake City,’ and they say, ‘Oh, God, are you a Mormon?’ ” Allen said. “They immediately start spewing straight-up bigotry. . . . It’s completely amazing to me how many people behave the way that the narrator in the original film behaves.”
At first, Allen wanted to adapt it to the stage for his D.C. theater company, Cherry Red Productions, known in Washington for staging such outrageous plays as “Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack.”
Instead, Allen made a movie, shooting with a digital camera on four consecutive weekends last fall. Allen’s version emulates the grainy black-and-white look and melodrama conventions of the original.
But Allen decided to push some plot elements, like Isoldi’s hypnotic abilities, to the absurd extreme.
“At the time, there was a little bit of hysteria going on around hypnosis, so they literally thought the Mormons were hypnotizing [women] and taking them away,” Allen said. “If you have that setup, what is the logical conclusion of that fear? I think that they would turn into some sort of freakish zombies that would do the bidding of the Mormons.” Hence the movie’s blood-drenched final battle between Isoldi’s vampire brides and Nora’s rescuers.
Allen also highlights the original’s underlying sexual tension.
“This thing is, at its heart, all about the battle of the sexes – men trying to control women, and women either succumbing to that or trying to get away from it,” he said.
Blurring the movie’s gender line is the “actor” playing Isoldi: Johnny Kat, the pompadour-wearing alter ego of D.C. drag performer Stacey Whitmire. “I was very excited to have a ‘drag king’ play that role, partly because of the sexual dynamics that go on in the movie,” Allen said.
The new “Trapped by the Mormons” will start its three-week run Friday in Washington. After that, Allen aims to take it on the festival circuit – and he wants to screen it in New York and Salt Lake City.
Allen doesn’t expect devout Mormons to see the movie; the violence and brief bits of nudity would probably earn an R rating. But, he said, “it’s not really for Mormons. If they like it, great, but hopefully it’s speaking to a different crowd.”
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