TV network takes gamble on suicide cult

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Giving new meaning to the phrase cult film, a US network has announced plans to turn a now-familiar tale of castration, comets, and tragi-comic death into a television movie.

Several Hollywood producers had publicly declared the Heaven's Gate cult off-limits on the grounds of poor taste and a weak plot.

But the ABC network says it has now signed a deal to produce a film based on the story of its lone survivor. And if emerging details of the cult's life are anything to go by, there is plenty of bathos to go around.

In the weeks before their suicides, cult members went gambling in Las Vegas, watched killer whales leap at San Diego's Sea World, and took a bus trip through California.

The lone survivor, a computer designer, Richard Ford, known as "Rio D'Angelo" in the cult, left the group four weeks before its 39 members committed mass suicide in their home north of San Diego.

He became the subject of a media manhunt when he was named as the source of an anonymous call alerting police to the deaths. As late as Thursday, ABC had insisted it was not developing a film. But the sudden change of heart came as the network began running trailers for an exclusive interview with Mr Ford on its television news magazine, Prime Time Live.

Network officials insisted there was no connection, but netting "Rio" was clearly a major scoop. Mr Ford reportedly drove to the hill-top villa and discovered the bodies after receiving two videotapes in which members announced they were leaving their earthly "vehicles" to join a UFO trailing the Hale-Bopp comet. The film deal was arranged by Nick Matzorkis, the Beverly Hills businessman for whom he worked as a World Wide Web designer, and who rapidly became his agent.

It also involves the Kushner-Locke company, which has produced television films with Dolly Parton and other stars, and had coincidentally employed Mr Ford when it contracted with the cult's business arm, Higher Source, to do some web site work. Its chairman Peter Locke insisted it would be a "spiritual and compelling" account that dealt with cult members as "productive human beings". ABC itself was hardly trumpeting the film deal yesterday, and there may be lingering concerns about how, exactly, the story will unfold .

"We will stick to the human element," Mr Matzorkis, who will serve as an executive producer, told the Los Angeles Times.

The trips of the last days are recorded in a meticulously kept ledger of finances. Its last entry shows they mailed their next month's rent, and paid a $2.50 library fine.

Having filmed the videotapes in which each and every member described why they planned to leave this earth, they went out for pizza and a movie.