Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a weekly column in which Rob Hunter and I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the ’70s.
Those of you who are familiar with conspiracy theories know all about the Skull and Bones society. The group — which is made up of Yale University’s elite students — has been around since the 19th century. Some of its alumni allegedly include George W. Bush, Paul Giamatti, and other influential people. The fraternity is a big deal, and I hear they even let women join these days.
Naturally, some conspiracy theorists also believe that the elite club is a branch of the Illuminati, a cabal of powerful figures who govern the world from the shadows. Secret societies crop up regularly in horror movies and thrillers, and some of these movies mine “real” organizations for inspiration. The Brotherhood of the Bell is one such movie.
When: September 17, 1970
Directed by TV movie mainstay Paul Wendkos from a script by David Karp, The Brotherhood of the Bell is fascinated with the conspiratorial aspect of the Skull and Bones fraternity. While there is no mention of the group in the movie, the film’s titular shadowy sect is evidently a riff on the organization that made Bush president. In the film, it’s established that the Brotherhood recruits members from an esteemed college. And with the membership comes a lifetime of wealth and power — if those initiated agree to the sect’s demands.
In order to gain entry into the Brotherhood, one must make a promise to do what is asked of them IF they’re called upon to do a favor. It’s basically the same idea as The Godfather’s “Someday, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me” scene. And just when the alumni start think that day will never arrive, they get called upon. The film revolves around Andrew Paterson (Glenn Ford), a successful professor who gets summoned 30 years later to blackmail one of his friends on behalf of the Brotherhood. When his friend later shows up dead, Andrew suspects foul play and proceeds to try and expose America’s privileged elite, all of whom are elderly white dudes.
However, after Andrew threatens the Brotherhood, he begins to lose everything. At first, he’s barred from gaining entry into his office and his secretary stops showing up for work. As his paranoia starts to increase, his marriage hits the rocks and his reputation is destroyed. But he refuses to let the Brotherhood win, so he decides to make his story public and subsequently appears on every radio and TV show that’ll have him.
What ensues is a very paranoid suspense drama that walks a fine line between reality and imaginary. Andrew’s convinced that the Brotherhood is out to get him, but his misfortunes also have a logical explanation behind them. I won’t spoil the movie as it does have moments that confirm what’s really going on, but it does a great job of pulling the rug out from under the viewer just when everything seems predictable.
The Brotherhood of the Bell was born from the political climate of the 60s and 70s, a time where distrust of powerful institutions was high. The Watergate scandal was brewing, and theories about the existence of a New World Order ruling over global affairs didn’t seem all that wacky. However, there are moments within the movie that still hit home today.
Take the scene where Andrew is on a talk show, which brings out his defenders and accusers. An African-American audience member stands up and discusses how the Brotherhood has ensured that America’s white ruling class has remained in power for centuries. A woman then tries to discredit Andrew as a “Jew.” Finally, the show’s host claims that the cabal is real and is a branch of the corrupt Roman Catholic Church. There are still conspiracy theories about all of these groups “ruling the world” from the shadows, and the movie uses this scene to present how different people have their own beliefs in regards to who wields too much power. That said, the film’s core theme of privileged elites having too much power is topical in 2020.
Still, if you read this column because you want horror movie recommendations, The Brotherhood of the Bell might not be what you’re looking for. The film certainly isn’t devoid of scenes that will make your neck hairs stand up, but it’s not a horror movie in the traditional sense. But if you enjoy movies like The Parallax View — which is terrifying in its own right — give this one a try.
The Brotherhood of the Bell is a gem that I implore everyone to check out. Rob and I started this column to unearth forgotten gems from yesteryear, and this movie fits the bill as a treasure that deserves a wider audience. While I wouldn’t put the film on the same level as the works of Alan J. Pakula and other masters of suspense and conspiracy from the 70s, The Brotherhood of the Bell is a strong addition to that cinematic wheelhouse.
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