The Believers (1987)

Way back when, as my film obsession really began to take hold, I found myself becoming more and more interested by the Rating tags that would turn up on movie posters. To me, especially since I was at the age (8-12) when I started checking out edgier fare (thanks, Mom and Dad!), I found the cautionary details laid out in the tags to be a perverse sort of additional advertising. While they were obviously intended to inform parents and individuals with sensitive personalities about the questionable aspects that were in store for any viewers of a particular title, they also had the power to intrigue. ‘The Believers’ is one such movie that I remember having THAT effect on lil ole me. For whatever maladjusted reason, the declaration of ‘Gory Violence’ (as I seem to remember it) tacked in with ‘Language’ and ‘Suggestive Scenes’, caught my eye…as did the minimalist original poster itself. However, despite this interest, I never did get around to checking this flick out. Until now. Even all these years later, I’d never actually taken the time to find out what ‘The Believers’ was even about. I knew that Martin Sheen (‘Apocalypse Now’) was in it and that somehow, he and his kid were in danger from…something. That’s it. That’s all I knew. So this morning, while my Better Half is still away on vacation, I decided to fire it up over coffee at 8am. I pulled out one of our ‘Kids’ (one of our male Leopard Geckos), laid him on his Viewing Pillow, and hit PLAY.
After an unexpected prologue involving the voodoo-like human sacrifice of a child, ‘The Believers’ opens with Martin Sheen’s character ‘Cal Jamison’, a police psychiatrist, enjoying a mundane suburban life with his wife and son ‘Chris’ (Harley Cross). In short order, there’s a terrible freak accident and both ‘Cal’ and ‘Chris’ witness Mom get electrocuted to death in their kitchen (stupid coffee machine!). In the wake of this tragedy, ‘Cal’ opts to move back to New York City (where he’d originally gone to school) and get on with his life. We are quickly introduced to the stereotypically superstitious Latino maid and the quirky but cute older landlady ‘Jessica’ (Helen Shaver). In seemingly no time flat, ‘Cal’ is gettin it on with ‘Jessica’ (who lives across the street) and reconnecting with an old lawyer / aspiring magician buddy named ‘Marty’ (Richard Masur). As ‘Cal’ strives to make his new life work, we are then introduced to ‘Detective Sean McTaggert’ (Robert Loggia, with some really bad hair). ‘McTaggert’ has been called into a crime scene where one of his plainclothes detectives named ‘Lopez’ (Jimmy Smits) has been found hysterical in an old theatre, where there is also the gutted body of a child and evidence of ritualistic sacrifice. ‘Lopez’ has clearly lost his shit and demonstrates this by pulling his service revolver on ‘McTaggert’. After a brief struggle, ‘Lopez’ is overpowered and ‘McTaggert’ makes a call. ‘Cal’ picks up that call…and is pulled into the growing investigation of ‘Lopez’s hysterical claims of black magic and sacrifice. It’s through this prodding for information that ‘Cal’ soon finds himself (and those around him, especially ‘Chris’) in mortal danger.
‘The Believers’ is an interesting movie that does suffer from some obvious dating. It’s VERY ‘1987’, and not necessarily in a good way (like say, ‘Robocop’ or ‘Beverly Hills Cop 2’). I found myself wondering how a remake of this flick would fare nowadays as, if handled correctly and with style, the idea of Old World black magic and voodoo set against a backdrop of shiny modern-day technology could turn out very cool. Especially if some of the the ‘teeth’ of this film are kept. Going back to the ‘Rated R’ tags that I remember about this one as a kid, for the most part, they’re earned. There is some nasty, disturbing imagery that did, for better or worse, help elevate my interest beyond the obvious late 80’s trappings. The entire subject of mutilated kids bodies turning up in various decrepit locales around New York is bad enough, but we also get some grim imagery of sacrificed animals and the graphic effects of some nefarious spells on certain side characters.
The Acting is something of a mixed bag. Martin Sheen, as usual, is mostly solid, as is his comic- relief chum ‘Marty’ (Richard Masur, from ‘The Thing’). I’d never knowingly seen anything featuring Helen Shaver (‘Tremors 2: Aftershocks’) before, but here she was…ok. The issue I had with her character was how the dynamic with Martin Sheen’s character came about. Jimmy Smits (‘Star Wars: Attack of the Clones’) does a good job coming off as a sweaty, twitchy basket-case while Robert Loggia (‘Lost Highway’) brings a world-weariness to his mentally-tortured cop character. Other familiar faces turn up in the cast and they’re all more or less serviceable.
The real issues I had with this one came from the script. Apparently this flick is based on a book called ‘The Religion’ that I know nothing about, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of the adaptation. However, I CAN comment on how certain characters and situations were handled. First off, the romance between ‘Cal’ and ‘Jessica’ is just plain stupid and far-fetched. In seemingly no time flat, they go from being pleasantly civil to one another to suddenly being all nekkid together in bed. Um…what? Where did THAT come from?! From there, I just didn’t buy how much she was suddenly featured in the issues (both the mundane and the fantastic) that reared up to plague ‘Cal’. She does end up on the receiving end of a nasty curse that had me feeling bad for her, but the romantic aspect just felt forced and weak. Their interactions also gave rise to what approached Bad Acting from Martin Sheen, as it seemed like even he didn’t believe the dynamic they were going for. There’s also the reveal of the ‘villains’ which, maybe due to many movies having since taken a similar direction (power-hungry politician and minions using magic to get ahead), came as no big surprise. I see the potential for a story line like it to be cool, depending on how it’s handled, but here it came across as ‘yawn…seen it before.’ There were some other elements that could’ve been tightened up or better connected too, either in editing or on The Page.
‘The Believers’, after 28 years, can now be scratched off my ‘Must See’ list. Was it well worth the wait and am I now a changed man for having FINALLY gotten around to seeing it? Um…no. It’s a decent thriller, but really nothing exceptional. There are some nasty bits and it does end on a real WTF?! moment (with a great freeze-frame of Sheen), but the dating and somewhat ‘flat’ presentation keeps me from declaring this one a ‘MUST SEE!’ for the masses. If you’re a true fan of Martin Sheen or of films dealing with voodoo, human sacrifice and generally Powers of Darkness, then you may get something out of ‘The Believers’. Beyond that, I can’t REALLY recommend that this one be sought out by true Film Fans, as most of them will have already seen the key elements of THIS film in any number of other movies. It’s not bad…but it’s certainly not great.

*The ‘Chris’ character was highly annoying and I nearly cheered when Sheen went to town on spanking the kid in the middle of the street for being a strange little shithead at one point. Does that make me a bad guy?!


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