The Believers Review
John Schlesinger can hardly be accused of short-changing his audience. The Believers begins with, if you’ll forgive me, a bang; one which is so horribly plausible and upsetting that it’s hard to watch. Indeed, if your idea of a good horror film is one which gets you so tied up inside with emotional knots that you can barely look at the screen then this is the movie for you. If, on the other hand, you resent a film which manipulates your basic feelings with quite as much finesse as this one, you’ll almost certainly hate every frame. I’m somewhat in the middle – I don’t like The Believers very much but I also have to acknowledge that this is a genuinely frightening and well made film.
Following the death of his wife in an electrical accident, Dr Cal Jamison (Sheen) moves back to New York with his son, Chris (Cross). He gradually becomes involved with a series of ritual child murders and a linked case in which a police officer, Lopez (Smits) claims to have been cursed by crazed practitioners of the Santeria religion, led by a mysterious black man with hypnotic powers. The Doc and his son predictably become the targets of the religious nutters and it’s not long before all manner of unpleasantness is taking place.
Based on a novel by Nicholas Conde, the film deals in an incredibly simplistic way with the religion of Santeria, a faith which has its origins in the slave trade when African natives were forcibly transported to the Caribbean and made to convert to Catholicism. In order to maintain their native beliefs, the slaves mixed up concepts from their own religion with the tenets of Rome. It’s estimated that around 35,000 people practise Santeria in the USA, according to the American Religious Identification Survey. It’s a monotheistic religion in which God, or “Olorun”, is a supreme being who operates through lesser agents called “Orisha”. Practitioners of Santeria believe in the power of ritual animal sacrifice and the literal possession of a host by one of the Orisha. However, the film falsely postulates that Santeria also involves ritual human sacrifice, the use of psychic projection and the ability to cast a curse upon non-believers which will cause them to kill themselves out of hallucinatory fear. An attempt to counter this rather outrageously unfair depiction is made by a doctor who objects that Santeria isn’t about any of these things but as he then turns out to be one of the bad guys, this counter-weighting is decidedly pointless.
Upon its cinema release, The Believers was generally dismissed as a ludicrous and nasty exploitation flick. To some extent, this is quite understandable and not entirely inaccurate. It uses the killing of children and a distortion of a well known but barely comprehended religion in order to get some cheap shocks and wind up its audience to fever pitch. However, all horror films have to exploit our basic fears in order to unnerve us and it’s only when the exploitation of our emotions is badly performed that we tend to object. The Shining is just as basically manipulative but Kubrick’s filmmaking is so brilliant that we don’t notice the cracks. The endangering of children is something to which most of us have an instinctive repulsion but that’s not necessarily a reason for not using this in a horror film. The Believers at least does it a little more openly and honestly than Audrey Rose, reviewed earlier today, without pretending to be a serious work of intellectual investigation in the way that Wise’s film does.
I also think that The Believers is, in technical terms, a very good piece of filmmaking indeed and one of the most seamless jobs of direction that John Schlesinger has done since his 1970s heyday. Always good at intense stories which upset his audience – think of Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man and the underrated, terrifying Day of the Locust - he uses an elemental power which gets to you from that horribly effective opening sequence. Every scene is carefully weighted, none of them go on too long and the characters are keenly observed and economically defined. His choice of DP was quite inspired. Robby Muller’s work for Jim Jarmusch and, most notably, for Wim Wenders demonstrated his ability to create atmosphere through colour and careful shades of light and differing degrees of shadow. The film is all of a piece, a visual extravaganza which is deeply affecting. This visual distinction is more than the tacky, melodramatic story deserves but it certainly raises it above its station and Schlesinger never produced anything which looked as good as this again. Admittedly, compared to his career-best work for the BBC on A Question of Attribution it’s deeply flawed, but visually it’s one of the high points of 1980s horror. On a similar note, at a time when most horror was gore fodder made for teenagers, this is a strong, adult film that isn’t afraid to get to the audience.
However, this has some serious drawbacks. Most significantly, the visual strength of the film tends to emphasise the problems with the narrative. The timescale is confused – the time between the death of Sheen’s wife and the move back to New York is contradicted in the dialogue – and the identity of the ‘mystery villains’ is so incredibly obvious from the first time they appear that if you don’t guess who they are, you deserve to have your DVD player taken away as a forfeit. Smaller niggles such as Sheen appearing to live in two different parts of the city at once and the idiotically speedy nature of his relationship with his landlady Jessica (Shaver) are irritants but they begin to build up. The characters are well defined through a few broad strokes but they’re also stereotypes – alcoholic cop, all-comprehending psych, hysterically gesticulating Latino maid. The actors do their best and some of them – the reliable Sheen, Robert Loggia, Lee Richardson, Harris Yulin – come out of it with honour. But the characters tend to behave inconsistently and rarely rise above cliche.
As for the depiction of Santeria, it’s got all the subtlety which Hollywood continually demonstrated in its use of voodoo over the previous fifty years. While not necessarily racist – white as well as black Americans are heavily involved, although the chief bad guy is a black priest who has the kind of scary white-eyed gaze that you used to see in racist propaganda - you get the general impression that Schlesinger and the writer, Mark Frost – who devised Twin Peaks with David Lynch – have confused Santeria with the Hollywoodised definition of voodoo and simply gone all out for anything which might shock the audience. Sometimes, this is admittedly entertaining. I especially like the scene in which the film decides to turn into a tacky B-Movie when an insect comes buzzing out of a lesion on Helen Shaver’s face. At such moments, however, the masque falls apart and the true nature of this film comes shining through. It really is a B-Movie at heart, for all its visual beauty, and an overstretched and sometimes needlessly solemn B-Movie at that. As for the ending, it’s not only predictable, it’s also totally illogical.
If this review seems a little confused then that reflects my feelings about the film. You see, I find The Believers a slightly objectionable film with racist overtones and some truly horrible scenes of child murder that are upsetting. But horror films are meant to upset us and provoke us and Schlesinger’s film certainly does that. It’s frightening in a distinctive way, one which is hard to shake off once it’s over. It gets to you and makes you nervous in a way which is hard to achieve without very careful filmmaking. Ultimately then, The Believers is worth seeing for horror fans simply because it goes further than most mainstream horror films in aiming to disturb its audience. If you’re looking for some trashy fun, however, you won’t find it in this sombre, verbose film.
The Believers arrives on Region 2 DVD in pretty good shape. However, the excellent transfer tends to point up the fact that, otherwise, the disc is about as minimal as you can get.
The film is framed in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and the transfer is anamorphically enhanced. Surprisingly, this is a stunning picture and a gorgeous representation of Robby Muller’s beautiful cinematography. Short of a full blown restoration in years to come – which is hardly likely – I can’t imagine the film ever looking better than this. The blacks are rich and deep, the colours blindingly strong and the overall appearance filmlike without looking excessive grainy. The only slight flaw is occasional aliasing but this isn’t too distracting.
The soundtrack is a straight 2 channel transfer of the original Dolby Stereo recording. This is also good, a full and evocative track which stands up well to being played at high volume – the atmosphere of the film improves when played loud.
No extras at all, barely any menus worth mentioning and 16 chapter stops. The film is fully subtitled in English and several other languages.
The Believers is a strange beast; a scary and disturbing film which is also trashy, poorly plotted and objectionable. It is, however, well made and worth a look for genre fans. MGM’s DVD is visually excellent but otherwise unremarkable.