Toronto — Canada came close to having its very own Jonestown or Manson family murders, says a Quebec woman who managed to flee the grasp of 1980s cult leader Roch Theriault after he cut off her right arm with a chainsaw.
“Definitely!” says Gabrielle Lavallee, 52, who wears a hook where her right arm used to be. “It had already started. One of my colleagues, Nicole, she died after surgery that he had done. When he played doctor, he was Frankenstein. And then it was my turn.”
The story of Theriault and Lavallee, one of his eight commune “wives,” is told in Savage Messiah, a new TV movie airing Sunday night on the premium channels The Movie Network and Movie Central.
Savage Messiah recounts the well-publicized case of Theriault, the charismatic Quebecer who established a commune near Burnt River, Ont., 15 years ago, where he ruled over his concubines, 26 children and other followers.
His religious cult became increasingly bizarre and cruel, however, and soon social workers and police were investigating reports of abuse of the women and children and eventually the death of an infant and one of his wives, who had been partially disembowelled with a kitchen knife.
Theriault, who wanted to be called Moses, was brilliant at manipulating both the legal system and vulnerable individuals, but he also had a maniacal streak that triggered brutal punishment and even torture.
“It’s a miracle that I survived such barbaric aggression,” says Lavallee.
“That night, July 26, 1989, he hacked off my right arm, not only my hand, he took off part of my right arm.”
Montreal producer Bernard Zukerman (Million Dollar Babies, The Sleep Room) says he usually makes network TV films but this story had to air on pay TV, although it’s scheduled to be shown on Showcase at a later date.
“The restrictions of being able to do it for them (conventional TV) would have watered it down so much it would have lost much of the impact necessary for the story.”
Although filmed in English with mostly French-Canadian actors (Luc Picard, a major star in Quebec, plays Theriault), Zukerman says the production garnered intense media coverage in the French press during shooting. And the book on which it was based has sold 200,000 copies.
As a result, they decided to have the actors dub their own voices back into French and released Savage Messiah theatrically across Quebec.
It did huge box office, netting more than $1 million on 66 screens in three weeks, beating out all the Hollywood blockbusters to be the highest-grossing film in the province.
“It really showed me the great divide,” says Zukerman. “Like how different Quebec is than English Canada.
“They embrace their stories, they embrace their stars. It was an incredible lesson for me.”
Like so many Canadian productions, Savage Messiah required international financing partners, in this case U.K. and German.
For his heroine, the pit bull of a social worker who pursued the Theriault case, Zukerman employed British actress Polly Walker.
Although she does a fine job, she no doubt will aggravate the confusion of viewers who already have to distinguish among Polly Shannon (Trudeau), Molly Parker (Rare Birds) and Molly Shannon (Saturday Night Live).
For her part, Lavallee has dealt with her trauma by writing a book – she’s hoping it will get an English translation and printing – and by spending the last nine years touring schools in Quebec, lecturing kids on the dangers of cults that prey on the weak and vulnerable.
“The first step that I took was to use writing, to apply myself to de-programming. Because we were brainwashed. And during the catharsis I was able to recreate the personality that I had before I endorsed his ideology.”
Although Theriault -now in New Brunswick’s Dorchester Penitentiary – has been eligible for parole since 1999, he is reported planning to apply for the first time this summer. Conjugal visits with three of his remaining wives have allowed him to father still more children.
But Lavallee says he should never be allowed to go free.
“He is incurable,” she says. “A sadistic psychopath.”