The Believers is fascinating for several reasons, the least of which is the story itself. Written by Mark Frost, fresh off his stint as a writer for the hit TV shows Hill Street Blues and The Equalizer, and just two years before he would embark on the series that would change the television landscape forever, Twin Peaks, Frost dipped his toe in the horror genre, which would prove to be ample training ground for his collaboration with David Lynch.
Directed by one of the architects of the 1960s British New Wave, John Schlesinger, who exploded on the American Cinema scene with 1969’s Midnight Cowboy and showed how adept he was in many genres, from thrillers like Marathon Man to British Satire Cold Comfort Farm, The Believers would seem to be somewhat in his wheelhouse.
Starring Martin Sheen in his mid-life renaissance (he was going gangbusters in TV movies and short-lived series, and kept trying to break back into films, scoring, at best, supporting roles in a couple Stephen King adaptations (Firestarter and The Dead Zone) before securing the lead in 1987’s The Believers.
With all these elements at play, the hope would be for a tight and terrifying chiller. I’m not going to say the film isn’t frightening, but The Believers becomes a pretty standard ‘80s, if not completely unoriginal, cult-paranoia-style thriller. Everyone involved seems to be trying to do their best, and for its time, it was a middling-to-decent film, but fails to ultimately hold up.
Widowed police psychologist Cal Jamison (Sheen) moves his son from Minneapolis to New York after the horrific accidental electrocution of his wife by a faulty coffeemaker. In the new brownstone apartment where Cal and his son attempt a life of normalcy, he visits with police officers suffering from on-the-job traumatic stress in his home office, all the while the landlord, attractive interior designer Jessica Halliday (Helen Shaver) gets the flat up to code.
Cal is called to the site of a grisly cult-like murder of a young boy because one of his patients, Tom Lopez (Jimmy Smits) was working undercover and discovered the body. He is hysterical because a cult member has got his badge, and a follower of Santeria, Lopez believes his soul is in danger.
Meanwhile, and strangely coincidentally, Cal’s new maid and nanny for his son also seems to be a Santeria follower and has been placing religious icons and other paraphernalia around his son’s bed. While Cal and his son are playing in Central Park one day, they stumble upon the apparent site of an animal sacrifice (a beheaded cat) and his son picks up one of the trinkets left by the body.
Concurrently, a mysterious man (Malick Bowens, recognizable from Out of Africa as the Kikuyu tribesman who becomes Karen Blixen’s servant) arrives from Haiti at the airport, able to get past customs with questionable luggage by hypnotizing the TSA agent. Cal is able to take solace dealing with his wife’s passing by visiting with family friends Kate and Dennis Maslow (the always recognizable Elizabeth Wilson and Lee Richardson) who had once been Cal’s wife’s Anthropology mentors on trips to Africa.
Tom Lopez, on the run from the law for his questionable ties with the cultists, is getting sicker by the day. He seeks out a Santeria shop and ingests some herbs to help with the terrible stomach cramps he’s having, until the pain is too much, and he pulls out a knife behind the counter and stabs himself. Police Lieutenant Sean McTaggert (80s ubiquitous tough cop Robert Loggia) calls Cal into the autopsy, where they discover his stomach had been full of live snakes. What in the name of Maria Laveau is going on here?
Cal has become romantically involved with his landlady, and when he takes her to a political event at the suggestion of McTaggert, he meets high-powered businessman Robert Calder who seeks the favor of an African fringe religion for unknown reasons. While at the event, girlfriend Jessica overhears an unusual conversation between Calder and a Santeria expert. While sneaking around, she inadvertently leaves her powder by the bathroom sink where the mysterious man from Haiti touches her compact and replaces it. She returns and finishes powdering her nose.
Soon all hell breaks loose as McTaggert, getting too close to the “truth,” has a hex put on him and he is paralyzed in his easy chair. He takes his life with his service revolver. Cal’s son is kidnapped, and it seems all the powers that be are somehow involved in this cult, a mixture of Santeria, voodoo and every other demonic movie touchstone the filmmakers can think of. Even Jessica is pulled in, when her face explodes with spiders after applying too much Maybelline Mojo powder.
Several films focused on afro-cuban religions in the 80s, from Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow to Alan Parker’s blood-obsessed Angel Heart. Most of these outings were laughable, but still held some interest. Sadly, they are all rife with racism in their depictions of African/Haitian/Cuban pagans. In fact, several benign Santeria organizations protested The Believers’ confused depiction of the religion. And the film is definitely confused. We never get a clear sense just what the tenets of this “mysterious” religion is, as it is a patchwork of every dark cult we’ve seen from Rosemary’s Baby to The Stepford Wives. And of course, the convulsing, gyrating, possessed Haitians and Latinos we see during several ceremonies calls to mind the very worst in Hollywood’s racist predilection for the “religions of minorities,” – not to mention the the filmmakers obvious revulsion of a Haitian black man by showing his merely touching a white woman’s compact could lead to such a poisonous manifestation.
The Believers itself has more holes than a voodoo doll. Most notably, why is Sheen’s police psychologist involved with any of these goings on? Other than his connection to Jimmy Smits’ troubled undercover officer, there’s no further reason for his involvement. The nanny with the Santeria trinkets is a red herring, as is the decision by the cult to pursue Sheen’s son for sacrifice. If Sheen’s character were a reporter, or a writer seeking greater understanding of the cult murders, it might make more sense that he end up becoming the target of the cult’s ire, but in his current benign role as casual observer, the whole affair seems contrived.
There are some valid scenes of shock and gruesomeness, involving a fall from great heights resulting in multiple impalements, various animal sacrifices and the altogether unintentionally hilarious electrocution of Sheen’s wife (standing in spilt milk, a leaky coffee carafe and her hand on the power switch while shaking, convulsing and eyes popping as Sheen screams “nooooooo!” to be her undoing).
Twilight Time has, as usual, done a bang-up job of presenting this creeper, with a beautiful transfer and a haunting isolated score track. Whether or not you’re a believer, this thriller’s commitment to full-throttle 80s cheesiness will keep you amused all the way to its highly derivative conclusion.