Mental Health Awareness Month: The Eleventh Commandment (1986)
Ronald Reagan once said that The Eleventh Commandment was, “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”, but he got shot by a crazy person with a Jodi Foster fetish so what did he know. I say The Eleventh Commandment is, “Thou shalt not pass up a TV movie from the 80s.”, and, totally coincidentally, today’s film is a TV movie called The Eleventh Commandment. I don’t know what it is about Made-for-TV fare from the 70s and 80s that holds such an appeal to me, but it was a time when stars slummed it, often in groups, television could get away with a lot more wackiness in prime time, and the sub-Hollywood scripts take bizarre turns. Just look at Pray for the Wildcats or Secrets of a Married Man, and everyone knows the infamous weird of Bad Ronald. Today’s addition to Mental Health Awareness Month has some of the best of everything that a TV movie should have. It’s got an oddball celebrity star, a script straight out of freaky town, and a thick shellac of 80s cheese to glue it all together.
Bernard White stars as Robert, an ex-priest and current mental patient. After his parents were mysteriously killed, he left his order and tried to take over the family business. Robert had lofty, virtuous goals for the corporation, but his scheming Uncle Charles (Dick Sargent!) has him locked away in a mental institution. Escaping from the psych ward, Robert goes on a killing rampage starting with the evil ward matron (Jennifer Rhodes) as his first victim. Picking up his cousin Deborah from school, he takes the girl on a adventure through the city, taking her to a mission founded by his Order to teach her about the plight of the poor and hungry. (Which don’t only exist in Ethiopia as the young “We Are The World” blinded lass thinks.) Of course, while he’s there he does a little killing, then they stop for the night at at a hotel, and he does a little killing, after reading a bedtime story to his cousin naturally. His Uncle Charles is too distracted by the scheming of his wife (Marilyn Hassett) and his lawyer (Greg Millavey) that he doesn’t notice the girl is gone or Robert cutting a bloody swath toward him. That is, until it’s too late.
Every character in The Eleventh Commandment is deeply flawed. There’s no one likeable outside of grade school age, and even Robert, who comes on like an avenging angel, lets his self righteous slaughter go so wildly astray from his traitorous family that he becomes another indefensible slasher. The question is, was Robert a dangerous psychopath when he was put in the asylum or did the experience and the desire for revenge drive him to it. Bernard White’s performance is what saves the character and imbues him with enough of the audience’s sympathy. The Eleventh Commandment 's script penned by William W. Norton (I Dismember Mama, White Lightning, Big Bad Mama) wasdetermined to wallow in the worst natures of human behavior. If we are to believe that Robert was once a sane man, then, a priest, a loving cousin (in a surprisingly non-creepy way), and a man who seems like he once had a moral compass, went bonkers in the asylum. This is where the film shows its exploitation roots. The Eleventh Commandment aims to be sensationalistic, and coupled with a surprising amount of gore for network television and a bleak ending, it aims and hits.
Director Paul Leder, the visionary behind I Dismember Mama, shows off his low budget chops with The Eleventh Commandment, and if I hadn’t known it was a TV property, it would have seemed like more than decent drive-in fare. Leder squeezes a couple of good performances out of his actors which make the film. Bernard White (Quarantine, Matrix Reloaded) hams it up at times, but Robert is a larger than life figure. A man of the cloth and the knife, he shows every emotion from rage to childlike glee all regulated by a twisted piety. Dick Sargent, of Bewitched fame, really gets his teeth into the scenery. At one point Marilyn Hasstt’s character accuses him of being smug, and that is just it. Sargent has always come off as the embodiment of smug and it works perfectly here. While child actors are always a gamble, I found Lauren Woodland (AlienNation) to be quite enjoyable as Robert’s only link to a non-violent world. Often listed as top billed in The Eleventh Commandment, Fresh Prince of Bel Air dad, James Avery, shows up as a sympathetic orderly in the beginning of the film, and then he promptly disappears.
When I talked about made-for-TV films up top, I talked about my expectations, and some people might say that I set the bar way too low. I say, hell no, who needs a bar. I killed the bar when I was only three. The Eleventh Commandment not only met my expectations; it far and away surpassed them. With a snappy rhythm, some daring moves, and some crazy people in the movie and writing the script, everything came together into a giant cheese ball of goodness. That about locks everything down for Mental Health Awareness Month this week, I’ll be back later on this week with more films and join me back here Mondays for more madness in May. And remember, if you start feeling like you're losing your mind, you're going crazy, and nothing makes sense, then face plate tuna slacks.
There seems to be no clip available so in its place... death metal.