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"The Believers" (1987)

“The Believers” (1987)

What’s it about?

A New York psychiatrist finds that a voodoo cult, which believes in child sacrifice, has a keen interest in his own son.

“The Believers”

Directed by John Schlesinger

By Vic

Among his later films,  I strongly feel that “The Believers” is indeed a very decent and chilling entry by the late John Schlesinger who brought us the  classic  “Marathon Man” and the immortal “Midnight Cowboy” which had Dustin Hoffman starring in both. Before this film he had done “The Falcon and the Snowman” and after he whipped up the very creepy “Pacific Heights” with Michael Keaton bringing the bad as the heavy. So, I think that “The Believers” is in good company.

The movie was released in 1987 and it was pretty much universally panned and considered just a small cult film with no legs. I feel that Schlesinger was making an attempt to provoke some controversy by exploring some thematic elements that resembled more a kind of political / religious analysis than a downright horror film. But here lies the rub. The film is both.

It’s creepy, thought provoking and very smart but it does fall into familiar territory at times. It’s not a bad thing but it cries for attention when the film doesn’t know what it wants to be. Martin Sheen, seen here very young and fit, stars as psychologist Cal Jamison who very suddenly loses his wife, Lisa, in an electrocution accident. The movie, written by Mark Frost (Fantastic Four, Twin Peaks) is based on the novel “The Religion.”

The film starts right off with a dreadful moment with the death of a spouse leaving Cal a widow left to raise his young son Christopher played by young actor Harley Cross. After this set up the movie settles one thing. Bad things happen and they happen sometimes beyond our control. Schlesinger establishes that we are all vulnerable and it is something we are reminded of it a few more times before the film ends.

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Cal and Chris relocate some time afterwards to New York City where Cal works from his home counseling Police Officers and the like. With his home still in disarray he hires Carmen, a hispanic housekeeper played by Carla Pinza (Guiding Light). Actress Helen Shaver plays his landlord Jessica. As we are introduced to her we see her as a strong, erratic but calming presence for the still mourning Cal. Chris on the other hand is solemn and a bit withdrawn. Cal is approached by Sgt. Sean McTaggert played by the ever gruffy Robert Loggia to help him investigate some very strange ritual killings that are stumping the NYPD for it’s very strange occult elements.

Cal reluctantly agrees to help Sgt McTaggert with the odd deaths. Cal finds them gruesome to say the least and he is every bit as stumped as the NYPD but his housekeeper Carmen who has grown quite attached to Chris seems to know something about what is going on. Jessica and Cal grow close but Chris has a hard time accepting her and he even lashes out and attempts to run away almost getting himself killed.

In various places throughout the city more strange ritual murders are occurring even in public places like public parks and the like. It seems like the rituals involve chicken heads, animal body parts, candles, strange symbols and the like. It turns out to be a wicked form of Santeria and Brujeria. “The Believers” has been blamed for not distinguishing what these particular religions really stand for. It appears, like black magic and white magic, that Santeria and Brujeria do have variations. I feel that the film explored the disparities quite well. But I’m no expert.

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Santeria being a type of African infused Catholic religion against Bruheria which is commonly known as a type of witchcraft. “Brujo” meaning “Male Witch” in Spanish. So good Santeria which involves things like spells to get two people to fall in love as opposed to bad Brujeria where personal objects like say police badges and make up compacts can be used to form a bad spell against a person.

Sometimes the lines get a bit blurred but according to one of the creepier characters in the film named “Palo” (The menacing Malick Bowens from Outbreak and Out of Africa) the brujeria he performs has deadly consequences. Just ask actor Jimmy Smits as Detective Tom Lopez who runs afoul of Palo while investigating the murders. he becomes unglued when he finds out what is behind the murders and finds out that his badge has gone missing.

Smits turns in a very frantic, nervous and desperate performance in “The Believers” He flails, gesticulates and repeats the words “Culebra” over and over again. Culebra means Snake and the reason he keeps yelling out the words becomes apparent in the second act of the film. As Cal, Chris and Jessica deal with the intrusion of this dangerous cult which seems to have members everywhere, Schlesinger moves us into a neo-noir world of dirty streets, alleys, churches and desecrated ground. We are made to feel like we are part of this mysterious and peculiar universe that also explores how influenced the wealthy and prominent by the attraction of the cult that has twisted the religion around to benefit their careers both politically and financially.

Harris Yulin (Ghostbusters 2) plays Robert Culder, a very important man in NY society that succeeds in getting Cal and Chris involved. Actually when Chris becomes an intended target and even Carmen and her various spells cannot help him the movie feels very dreadful and dismal. But all is not lost. Cal needs to get to the bottom of this deadly mystery that has claimed even Jessica as a victim of brujeria. He tries desperately to save his son even when Sgt McTaggert also unravels and is no help. And even close friends cannot be trusted.

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Schlesinger and Mark Frost deliver a movie that is disturbing and remains to the very end a vexatious story with some good performances from Sheen, Shaver, Loggia and Smits. The talented and watchable Raul Davila (All My Children, Law and Order) even turns up as a distressed author who show a unique side to Santeria that is not evil or malevolent. The film moves at a good pace and slows down enough to let us get drawn into Cal and Chris’ world. Cal loves his son and it is the sole thing that propels Cal’s motivation to end all of the mysterious goings on.

The movie is beautifully shot by DP Robby Muller who gave us  the great looking films “Dead Man” and “Ghost Dog” and the music by J. Peter Robinson (Wayne’s World, The World’s Fastest Indian) is percussive and strange. The creepy as hell “Palo” is the one to watch. He has a very wicked dance scen right out of hell that is tormenting and remains to this day quite ominous.

Altogether upon re-visiting “The Believers” I found much more to like and appreciate than the last time I viewed it. It is still frightening, visceral and very well made. It’s an urban tale of mystery, faith, beliefs and love that is equally disturbing and emotional. A very well directed entry from Schlesinger that still raises the hairs on the back of my neck. Enjoy! Recommended!

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