In 1943, RKO’s sultan of shudders, producer/writer extraordinaire, Val Lewton, together with director, Jacques Tourneur provided the template for all voodoo/cultist claptraps to follow. Apart from its rather benign and not terribly prepossessing title, I Walked With A Zombie would enter Hollywood folklore as the occult picture to beat. Like anything Hollywood does, I Walked With A Zombie doesn’t really adhere to Afro-Caribbean traditions or Haitian spiritualism so much as it uses both as mere backdrop from which to draw on some expertly played bone-chilling thrills. Entertainment vs. religion…and never the twain shall meet. Flash forward to John Schlesinger’s all but forgotten spine-tingler, The Believers (1987); with more than a dash of Lewton’s highbrow for a terribly good fright, mercifully without all the gore typically associated with horror movies from the 1980’s.
Unimpeded by the stringencies of a production code, The Believers delves more deeply into the occult than its predecessor. Alas, it mangles the religious precepts of Santería just as badly; Santería, in its purest form, merely a system of beliefs derived, reconstituted and finally merged from the Yorùbá, Christian and Native American influences. There’s just enough Santería in The Believers to make non-believers curious about any religion that would promote ritual sacrifices and trances, designed to communicate with demonic spirits and apparitions. But Santeria actually came about because African slaves living in Cuba needed a means to preserve their own heritage; converted to Christianity, but unwilling to surrender their orishas – priests and priestesses – gradually morphed into saints from the Catholic pantheon.
The Believers really isn’t all that interested in Santeria proper so much as it would have us buy into the old voodoo clichés already well ensconced in our collective consciousness; black magic talismans, incense burning candles, the blood-letting of various fowl, dolls with destructively properties, and, shrines made of beads, bangles and other sundry memorabilia collected from the person about to have an insidious spell and/or curse cast upon them. Something as benign as a woman’s cosmetic compact or a business card can unlock the gates of hell…or so it would seem. Like everything else in this intelligently scripted – and mostly satisfying – thriller, The Believers treads lightly on fact, manipulating our collective paranoia and susceptibility for buying into such practices as more commonplace than fanciful. Who can you trust? No one. Where can you hide? Nowhere. How can you escape? You can’t. Even in a city of eight million, they will find you!
The Believers also feeds into the oft popularized cycle of horror movies involving satanic worship. These had been all the rage in the late 1960’s on into the 1970’s (Rosemary’s Baby 1968, The Exorcist 1973, and, The Omen 1976, the seminal masterworks of their time and still the exemplars by which others have tried, with marginal success, to emulate), strangely fallen out of favor with audiences only a decade later. There are, as example, only two bona fide attempts to resurrect the demon in the 1980’s: Angel Heart (1987) and The Believers; with honorable mention going to Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom (1984). It’s child sacrifices again this time around; The Believers’ resident baddie, Robert Calder (Harris Yulin) a disreputable middle-aged yuppie who has given his own son to these ritualized murders so he may continue to prosper in his superficial business practices in the Big Apple. It’s a bit of a stretch, in fact, once Mark Frost’s screenplay (based on Nicholas Conde’s novel ‘The Religion’) reveals the unsettling black magic merely in service to keep the upwardly mobile propped up in their cushy penthouses. Director, John Schlesinger might have at least reconsidered not biting the hand that fed an entire generation on this ‘greed is good’ philosophy.
But forcing the vane and socially affluent in the go-go 80’s to reexamine themselves is a little bit like asking the anti-Christ for holy communion; the altar already promoting another cultural mindset and unlikely to be reset by any movie recasting the dream chasers as the villains - until…of course, the inevitability of that profit-driven wellspring had completely run dry. Viewed from today’s fiscally abysmal vantage, The Believers seems more prescient; its pulpy occultist scenario taking on more ballast. And the picture is remarkably well cast; fronted by Martin Sheen’s forthright widower/psychologist, Dr. Cal Jamison, who moves his young son, Chris (superbly played without cutesy sentiment by Harley Cross) back to the city after the shocking/accidental electrocution of his wife, Lisa (Janet-Laine Green). The first and second acts of The Believers are, in fact, a riveting display of Schlesinger’s command of cinema language; Schlesinger creating a sense of ominous foreboding from the most nonthreatening household appliances and objects. We’re not talking Ouija boards and Tarot cards here, but coffee makers and homemade pottery. A woman’s compact, as example, causes landlady, Jessica Halliday (Helen Shaver) to grow a festering pustule on her cheek from which baby spiders spring forth. A good cop, Tom Lopez (Jimmy Smits) inexplicably commits suicide by plunging an ordinary kitchen knife into his belly; an autopsy later revealing live baby garter snakes slithering inside his large intestine.
If all this sounds rather gruesome, one of the most notable – and commendable – aspects about The Believers is just how intensely subdued it remains throughout most of its run time. Yes, there are glimpses of unspeakable wickedness scattered throughout its heart-palpitating narrative; the third act, regrettably, degenerating into the cheap thrills of a carnival dark ride. But John Schlesinger is a master storyteller first, foremost and, arguably, always. Rarely does he allow our expectations for more gore to be satisfied with mere show and tell; the implied far more effective than the revealed. In this regard, Schlesinger is immeasurably blessed to have Malick Bowens as Palo; the satanic emissary imported from the islands by Calder; first introduced into Cal’s life by his late wife’s parents, Dennis (Lee Richardson) and Kate Maslow (Elizabeth Wilson). Years before, the couple sacrificed their only son so Palo might survive a ritual ceremony and a deadly plague. His angular features exaggerated with grayed out eyes as he slips in and out of spellbound trances, channeling the magnetic undercurrents of the netherworld, Bowens delivers a penetrating performance that is as unnerving as it commands and compels with hypnotic precision. You will look on. You may even succumb – as a good many in Palo’s presence do.
Schlesinger’s great gift to The Believers is his ability to create a gradual and wholly terrifying unease cropping out of the everyday. Here is a movie replete in a sort of visual finesse we don’t really see in movies anymore; Schlesinger capably starting off with an unassuming series of events that will shortly prove to be anything but; a lone jogger and the delivery of the morning paper; a benign knock-knock joke and the malfunction of a coffee maker, resulting in a horrific electrocution witnessed by a child. Life will never be the same for Cal and Chris after the death of their beloved wife and mother. Still, each clings to the hope and the promise of a brighter tomorrow without her; Cal moving Chris back into the city, hiring an attorney, Marty Wertheimer (Richard Masur) to sue the makers of the machine, and, a Hispanic housekeeper, Carmen Ruiz (Carla Pinza) to keep up the newly renovated brownstone where they intend to start their ‘new’ lives. Across the street is sculptor/landlady, Jessica Halliday. She’s taken an immediate and obviously flirtatious interest in Cal. On the surface, life seems to be settling back to normal…or is it?
Cal’s work as a counsellor with the NYPD leads to his being contacted by Lt. Sean McTaggert (Robert Loggia) to aid in his investigation of a series of ritual killings; children disemboweled as human sacrifices. McTaggert has an invested interest in the case. One of their own is involved; Officer Tom Lopez (Jimmy Smits in a tortured and penetrating performance). Lopez has apparently gone mad while investigating the latest slaughter inside an abandoned theater. Or is he part of the cult responsible for these heinous murders? McTaggert’s closed lip approach to the case raises Cal’s dander. The two verbally spar over a few drinks, Cal pressing on without McTaggert’s help, endeavoring to interview the accused, presently tied down to a wheelchair at Bellevue. Lopez’s rants are cryptic at best, inferring someone has cast a spell on him after stealing his badge. Cal is empathetic but understandably perplexed. Not long thereafter, Lopez stages a daring escape, disappearing into the night. McTaggert encourages Cal to let him know if and when Lopez contacts him.
In the meantime, Palo arrives in New York with a menagerie of talismans, potions and other voodoo paraphernalia. While on a routine trip to Central Park, Cal and Chris encounter a woman performing animal sacrifices near a stone grotto; the moment thwarted by police who urge the gathered crowd to disperse. Chris finds a beaded shell nearby and takes it home, carrying it around with him; presumably, as a good luck charm. Unable to sleep, Cal skulks off to Jessica’s under the pretext of returning the watch she inadvertently/on purpose left behind. The two become lovers and exchange stories about their tragic first marriages. In the overcast of his romantic haze, Cal is completely oblivious to the fact Carmen has been casting spells while Chris sleeps. Predictably, Chris grows jealous of his father’s new relationship, running into traffic and narrowly avoiding being struck by oncoming cars.
Back at the house, Cal discovers Carmen’s ceremonial dolls placed around Chris’ room for his protection. He orders Carmen to stop practicing her ‘magic’. At the same time his home life is crumbling, Cal is summoned to a diner by Lopez, who has been hiding out from the police ever since his daring escape from the hospital. Regrettably, a powerful curse overtakes Lopez before they can meet. He stabs himself to death in the diner as horrified patrons look on. At the crime scene, Cal and McTaggert discover a magazine article Lopez is still clutching in his cold, dead hand; a cover story on affluent New York businessman, Robert Calder and the letters of a well-known charitable organization scribbled across the cover. The charity is run by Oscar Sezine (Raúl Dávila) whom Cal had earlier tried to contact with regards to questions about Santería. Cal attempts to broker favor with Sezine. But Sezine grows apprehensive and belligerent; McTaggert eventually threatening him with incarceration, unless he participates. McTaggert leaves his calling card behind, just in case Sezine has a change of heart. But Cal chooses to remain behind, and inquiries whether Sezine can get him and Jessica an invite to their latest fundraiser.
The invite secured, Cal and Jessica attend the glamorous event. They are introduced to Calder who is cordial but noncommittal about the details of his own affiliation. Jessica skulks off, under the pretext of using the washroom, but overhears Calder and Palo in a cryptic exchange. She also discovers a submerged skull in a fish tank inside Calder’s private office. However, Jessica is unaware that while she has been spying on them, Palo has managed to get a hold of her cosmetic compact; casting a spell on it. Returning to the event, Jessica is momentarily seduced by Palo who, in a bizarre tribal dance, imbued with another worldly spirit, sends many of the attendees into a momentary trance. The manipulation of Jessica’s own mind is interrupted by Cal who senses some greater evil at work. Returning to Sezine, and even more convinced both he and Chris are in grave danger, Cal asks Sezine to perform a Santerían sacrifice to cast out the evil on his family. This Sezine willingly performs, perhaps unaware of Calder’s darker intentions.
A short while later, Dennis and Kate offer to take Chris to their summer house in Connecticut for some leisurely fishing. Unable to recognize the evil in his midst, Cal agrees to this ‘vacation’; Dennis and Kate attended by Calder and Palo at their summer home. In the meantime, Jessica falls gravely ill; her repeated attempts to camouflage a boil on her cheek with makeup from her compact only causing it to grow and fester more rapidly. Cal is summoned to McTaggert’s apartment, discovering him badly dehydrated and delusional. McTaggert gives Cal a hidden case file that explains Calder’s son did not die of a suicide, as reported, but was actually made the first human sacrifice in these ritualized murders. McTaggert endeavors to take his own life with a revolver; Cal talking him down from this ledge momentarily and taking the loaded weapon with him as he leaves the apartment, quite unaware McTaggert has another gun strapped to his leg. He uses this second piece to take his own life. Returning to his apartment to pack and rejoin Chris at the summer house, Cal notices Jessica wildly flailing in her apartment. She is delusional and covered in spiders. But Cal rushes her to the hospital and she survives.
As luck would have it, Kate has had a change of heart about their plans for Chris. She telephones Cal at home, getting his answering machine. Shortly thereafter, the call is terminated by Palo and Kate is murdered; her body dumped under a tarp inside the nearby boathouse. Still unaware he is walking into a trap, Cal gets Marty to drive him out to the summer house in the dead of night. He asks Marty to keep the gun he took from McTaggert for the time being. But only a short while later, Dennis spikes Cal’s drink with a strong narcotic, revealing the cult’s plans to sacrifice Chris to perpetuate their own prosperity. Cal narrowly escapes to the boat house, discovering Kate’s body before being forcibly dragged to a remote warehouse where the intended ritual human sacrifice is scheduled to take place. Alas, it must be Cal who murders his own son. Chris, stripped and lying on a bed of ashes, awaits his execution; Dennis and Calder placing a large knife into Cal’s hands and asking him if he believes.
Cal plays along, grasping the knife firmly. But at the last possible moment, he stabs Dennis in the stomach instead. Marty, who has pursued them into the warehouse, now begins to fire McTaggert’s gun blindly into the crowd, wounding some and killing others. In the panic, Calder flees into the darkened recesses with Chris, barricading himself in a chain-link enclosed tool shed. But Cal is determined and eventually overpowers Calder. However, as Chris and Cal attempt their final escape, they are confronted by Palo who has already shot Marty with a poisoned dart and is preparing to strangle Cal with a heavy chain link. Imbued with an otherworldly power, Palo commands Chris come to him. Instead, Chris orders Palo to approach; compelling him to step off a narrow suspension bridge to his death. As Chris and Cal limp from the warehouse, we flash ahead a whole year. Cal has moved Chris and Jessica to a remote, but idyllic Connecticut farmhouse. She is pregnant with Cal’s child and the trio appears to have resolved their differences. They are a happy family. Or are they? For as Cal is drawn by his distraught and barking German Shepherd, he discovers another Santerían altar built in the loft of his barn; Jessica emerging from the shadows with a queer smile, suggesting it is for their own protection.
The Believers is a bone-chiller suspense/thriller through and through. In reexamining the film after the footlights have already come up, one quickly realizes Cal Jamison has never been entirely free of the powers of Santería. Indeed, our first glimpse of Chris, he is clutching a strange and obviously homemade voodoo doll at the family’s kitchen table moments before Lisa is electrocuted by the short-circuiting coffee maker. Where did he get it? Perhaps from Dennis and Kate; their own home populated by Haitian artifacts. On the surface, these artifacts appear benign. But are they? Director, John Schlesinger stages the more transparently suspenseful moments in the film (Palo’s ritual dance at the fundraiser, Lopez’s suicide, and, the chaotic showdown inside the warehouse) with the appropriate, frenzied aplomb. Still, it’s at the story’s most quiescent moments where the most unexpected realizations occur; Schlesinger revealing the irrefutable hallmarks of a master class cinema storyteller; capable of transforming the innocuous into a recoiling subculture of death worship.
The trick and the joy to be gleaned from this unsettling atmosphere ought to have made The Believers tops on everyone’s ‘must see’ lists back in 1987. Alas, it never happened. The critics remained indifferent to harsh in their critique of the picture, while audiences stayed away. Yes, The Believers made money. But it was hardly a slam dunk at the box office. Nor did it garner any major praise and/or awards along the way. I confess. Before this Twilight Time release, I only vaguely recalled catching it once on late night television, perhaps a decade or so earlier. The Believers' lack of critical cache – its’ failure to garner a reputation as an aboveboard thriller, carefully scripted, expertly played and meticulously orchestrated for maximum terror – is, indeed a shame.
Only the penultimate confrontation between Calder, Palo and Cal disappoints; Schlesinger apparently unable to escape fulfilling his audiences’ expectation for the truisms of a conventional fight to the finish; good versus evil made to bear out the pseudo-happy ending. Unfortunately, this seems ever so slightly rushed. The elements of suspense become forced, the acting too staged to be believed as the uber-cynical and menacing Calder reverts to the pretext of a frightened/caged animal, much too easily dispatched by Cal. Lest we forget, Calder is a true believer; directly or indirectly responsible for at least three child murders that we know of and countless other victims sacrificed to keep the deadly secrets of Santeria buried from public view. We can perhaps forgive Schlesinger this oversight because the performances in The Believers are uniformly solid and, at times, eloquently understated; the best of the lot being Martin Sheen and Malick Bowens; with Robert Loggia, Jimmy Smits and Harley Cross uncommonly good too.
Apart from top-notch actors, Schlesinger is also cribbing from Mark Frost’s carefully nuanced and solidly constructed screenplay. The Believers also benefits from J. Peter Robinson’s brooding minimalist underscore and some truly haunting camerawork by Robby Müller, evoking a queer unrest within these perpetually sunlit late summer landscapes. It’s odd, because on the surface the mounting dread eventually overtaking Cal and Chris, plunging them into this black magic nightmare, appears to be playing out in either their heads or our own, rather than as quietly observed. Schlesinger preys upon our imaginations; his command of these psychological complexities making the intangible concrete for his audience. This is not only effective. It is miraculous. That Schlesinger succumbs to a more transparent form of spookiness to generate shock value in the last act is, in hindsight, unfortunate. The chase through the warehouse is ill-conceived and wrought with a very heavy hand. Nevertheless, the epilogue (in which Cal realizes the woman he has married is also ‘a believer’) returns us to the tenuous counterbalance of darkness and light.
The other hurdle Schlesinger needed to overcome in The Believers – and arguably, did not – was to convince the affluent yuppies – the evil doers in his movie (alas, also the target audience for it) that their ‘succeed at all costs’ mentality was not only harmful to the outside world but equally as self-destructive. The cultists are whitewashed as monolithically cruel urbanites, willing to consume their young in exchange for the vapid creature comforts of fame, wealth, and political power. Loosely predicated on a sort of voodoo economics; a quid pro quo relationship between the selfish among the living and their self-serving netherworld gods, makes for a weak premise on which to build and sustain the movie’s plot; superficial comforts granted at an implausible level of self-sacrifice.
And then there is the uneasy relationship both Schlesinger and his screenplay have with Santeria as a religion. Like his fictional alter-ego, Cal – who fails to distinguish between the powers meant for good and evil (ordering Carmen from the house in a fit of rage for practicing ‘occultist magic’), Schlesinger is never entirely certain whether to make Santeria the enemy or the scapegoat; its practitioners the more obvious fall guys. Any religion can be spun in a direction counterproductive to its benevolent teachings; the spiritual made unholy by dabblers camouflaging their contempt for its sanctity in plain sight with a smiling mask of unbridled gluttony and greed. As such, viewing The Believers back in 1987 must have been an intensely alienating experience – the 80’s the heady height of chichi spend/spend glitz and glam-bam; Schlesinger compounding this insult with a complete disconnect from those practicing Santeria. That this never occurred to Schlesinger is baffling. Perhaps, he had already convinced himself the film’s innate ‘entertainment value’ would be enough to carry The Believers beyond these deal breakers to a safe harbor at the box office.
Twilight Times Blu-ray is a revelation. The Believers is in relatively fine form in 1080p; the Fox/MGM transfer an obvious upgrade from its previously released DVD. Alas, like a good many other titles in the Fox/MGM canon, this one has not been given the basic cleanup it so rightfully deserves. White specks and minute scratches and dust are fairly obvious throughout; more noticeable when projected on monitors larger than 50 inches. I’m also not loving the final dissolve; a bleached fade, revealing some digitized grain. Mercifully, these are relatively minor quibbles on an otherwise positive 1080p experience. Colors are fully saturated and contrast, depth and minute details are all extraordinarily realized. So, good stuff and thank you! The 2.0 DTS supports this presentation adequately. One minor disappointment: no extra features, save TT’s usual commitment to offering us isolated music cues and Julie Kirgo’s liner notes, we get nothing except the movie’s original trailer and the oft regurgitated MGM 90th Anniversary trailer. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)