MOVIE REVIEW- Big hate: Night of the living Mormons
Zombies, vampires, werewolves, ghosts, ghouls, sharks. To the pantheon of classic movie monsters, add the most fearsome of all: Mormons!
September Dawn uses the classic horror plot of unsuspecting travelers stranded near the place Where Evil Dwells, to make a movie that's a horror in more ways than one. You needn't feel any sympathy for the Mormon religion in general to be offended by the way they're being maligned here– and amateurishly at that.
"Inspired by actual events," September Dawn tells of an act of religious terrorism that occurred on September 11. But it's not the one you're thinking of. In a coincidence that could make you believe a Higher Power was behind it, the slaughter of 137 California-bound settlers in Utah Territory actually took place on September 11, 1857!
Flashbacks are set up from two perspectives. Brigham Young (Terence Stamp) is questioned about his role in the events we're about to witness in 1875, when Young is old. In 1877 a young woman is revisiting Mountain Meadows, where the massacre took place when she was six months old.
A wagon train of weary travelers from Arkansas, with a few from Missouri, find themselves facing six men on horseback. "What is it?" one migrant asks. Captain Fancher (Shaun Johnston) replies, "Riders. Looks like six of ‘em"; and we know we're in for two hours of bad dialogue.
Fancher says they'd like to rest and water their livestock, but the riders tell them to keep moving. They're overruled when their leader comes along. Jacob Samuelson (Jon Voight) is their bishop, general, and mayor of the local settlement, and probably has an Amway franchise on the side. He says the visitors can stay up to two weeks, but he'll be investigating them to be sure they're the Mormon equivalent of kosher.
Samuelson is accompanied by two sons, Jonathan (Trent Ford) and Micah (Taylor Handley), who ride around, investigating the women of the wagon train. Jonathan is single while Micah has only one wife, so he's almost as available. Jonathan spies Emily Hudson (Tamara Hope), whose father is the settlers' minister, and his fate is sealed.
Bishop Samuelson harbors a grudge against anyone from Missouri because he blames Missourians for the murder (in Illinois) of church founder Joseph Smith 13 years earlier. He's also upset ("A lot of things bother him," Jonathan notes) to see Nancy Dunlap (Lolita Davidovich), a woman in the wagon train, wearing pants and carrying a gun. "An abomination to God," he declares her, and condemns the whole party as "cursed beyond hope of redemption... children of Satan."
Besides noticing Emily, Jonathan has an eye for horses and admires the Kentucky thoroughbreds traveling with the travelers. When he tames one deemed "unridable," Capt. Fancher makes him a present of the horse and implies he can have Emily too, as a package deal. Their romance develops apace.
The Mormons, who have been widely persecuted, have some kind of working agreement with the local natives, the Paiutes, to keep new invaders from taking the land they now share. Currently fearing genocide in a threat from Pres. Buchanan to forcibly remove Brigham Young as governor, they would seem to have more important things on their plate than a few settlers passing through; but Bishop Samuelson declares the "gentiles" must die, according to a revelation he's had. Considering that his troops burned down a newspaper for printing a negative editorial about Mormonism, that's not unduly harsh. Besides, he's willing to spare children eight and under.
We're told the settlers are leaving "at first light," but comes the dawn and the Mormons have a meeting with the Paiutes, who then have to don war paint and otherwise prepare for an attack. When they reach the camp, the wagons still haven't moved. After their first assault, we're told there's a four-day siege, but we see no sign of it. The final attack occurs on September 11.
Director Christopher Cain, whose son, Dean Cain, makes a cameo appearance as Joseph Smith, made Young Guns, so it's no surprise he's better with scenes involving hot young men on horses than those involving romantic, spiritual, or political complexity.
Voigt, for once, doesn't have to overact because his dialogue does it for him. Ford has to deal with being prettier than his love interest while speaking a lot of unspeakable lines. While the Christian thing to do is give the whole cast a pass because they're stuck with unsalvageable material, it's just as well the wagon train doesn't make it to California– these people would have no future in the movies.