Written by: Mark Frost (screenplay), Nicholas Conde (novel)
Directed by: John Schlesinger
Starring: Martin Sheen, Helen Shaver, and Harley Cross
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"God can't save you, the Church can't save you. They get right inside your body you can't stop them."
If thereís a constant fear that can be traced in horror movies throughout the ages, itís the Western world's fear of sinister exotic forces lurking in dark corners of the globe. By 1987, the world was obviously much smaller than it was even five decades earlier, when the likes of King Kong and Island of Lost Souls reflected such fears; however, that didnít stop the folks at Fox from having John Schlesinger helm The Believers, a thoroughly batty riff on the theme that brings spooky Caribbean customs to Americaís doorstep in New York City.
Adapted from Nicolas Condeís The Religion, the film finds All-American police psychologist Cal Jamison (Martin Sheen) is shaken from his idyllic Midwestern existence when his wife (Janet-Laine Green) is electrocuted in a freak accident. Left to raise his young son alone, he moves to the Big Apple, where he quickly finds himself involved with a rash of bizarre slayings. As the bodies mount, police begin to suspect the murders to be part of a cult ritual, with all the signs particularly pointing towards the practices of Santeria, a folk religion that demands human sacrifice.
Credit is due to The Believers for tapping into a rich, unsettling mythology: before Sublime ruined it with that goofy fucking song, Santeria must have seemed like some weird, mystical force. Itís certainly the most fascinating thing about this movie, anyway, which actually isnít as much of a backhanded compliment as it sounds because The Believers is a finely tuned, intriguing mystery. From the opening scene, thereís an unrelenting menace that reveals itself both overtly and subtly. The latter instances are so effective that even an innocuous scene featuring a group of African-Americans playing bongos in the streets feels somewhat ominous (though thatís admittedly pretty unseemlyóthe film is clearly exploiting the exoticism of a minority culture and reducing it to evil voodoo). Despite the obvious shift in scenery, The Believers operates much like its predecessors, as the encroaching Santeria is meant to inspire a sort of primal fear of the exotic and the unknown, especially when itís stacking up a heap of eviscerated corpses.
As the tension mounts, the stakes deepen much like they do in similar films, only instead of subjecting audiences to the ghastly horrors of a corrupted white woman, it makes Jamisonís son the target of the Santeria cult. Again, small stuff--such as his maid's placement of some Santeria artifacts near the sonís bedóis cause for alarm, and The Believers briefly echoes the previous decadeís preoccupation with demonically-fuelled domestic turmoil, as the son wildly resists his fatherís courting of the landlady (Helen Shaver). But with so much else threatening to overtake the film, this mode is lost in the shuffle and merely becomes a stage on which weird shit happens. By the time the son has a freakout and runs into traffic, the scene has joined a procession of similar freakouts, including one where Jimmy Smits is convinced someone has planted snakes inside of his body and goes to great, horrific lengths to prove it.
Smits is Tom Lopez, a cop who becomes a suspect in the slayings, but thereís clearly something a little bit too neat about his alleged involvement. Jamison is quick to realize that everyone is eager to implicate Lopez, which leads him to sniff out an elaborate conspiracy involving an organization that targets children to fulfill their sacrifices. In an interestingóand somewhat timelyótwist, it turns out that we should have been afraid of the yuppie scum all along, as theyíve appropriated the Santeria in order to become more affluent. Itís like The Wolf of Wall Street with ritual sacrifice. If all of this sounds like a hoot, rest assured that it is; for about 90 minutes, The Believers is, well, somewhat believable and grounded. The same canít be said for the remainderónot when it feels like a new, ridiculous reveal is hiding behind every scene transition. All of this makes for delirious pulp, so the film eventually aligns quite well with the films that inspired it, though itís embellished with a dash of Rosemaryís Baby to boot.
Itís interesting that The Believers arrived alongside Angel Heart and The Serpent and the Rainbow, two films that similarly explore the unnerving potential of Caribbean religious practices. Only this one strives to double as a not-so-trenchant critique of the excess that spawned it, however, and its casting of opulent white men as the true villains resonates in a world where the 1% continues to reign. Greed is decidedly not good unless you're into disemboweling children. The Believers is also the wackiest of the trio, and thereís an especially wild disconnect between its pedigree and just how silly it isóbetween Sheen, Schlesinger, and DP Robby Muller, the film feels rather prestigious considering itís ostensibly about a cult of white guys with the ability to infest their enemiesí bodies with various vermin.
None of them falter or blink, though, even as the film becomes something of a riot. Sheen is steadfast as the increasingly desperate Jamison, while Schlesinger wrings suspense at every turn (the opening shocker involving Jamisonís wife will probably make you think twice about approaching your coffee maker), so The Believers well-crafted schlock thatís also deceptively heady. It might not have much to say about faith, nor does it ever quite shake its xenophobia, but it does make for a good reminder that the worst devils often wear a suit and tie. Having gone largely unheralded since its release, itís nice to see The Believers inducted into the Twilight Time canon, where it receives a nice HD upgrade, plus the companyís usual special features in the form of an isolated score track, the filmís trailer, and liner notes by Julie Kirgo. While The Believers feels familiar on a surface level, its use of Santeria mythology and Schlesinger's deft blend of suspense and graphic shocks provide enough flavor to separate it from the flock. Buy it!
The Believers and other Twilight Time titles can be purchased at Screen Archives.
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