John Schlesinger, who had initially made his name as part of the British New Wave in the 1960s before conquering the New Hollywood with his multi-Oscar winning drama Midnight Cowboy (1969), was in an exceedingly strange place in the 1980s. He had been a consistent artistic voice throughout the 1970s with daring films like the groundbreaking bisexual drama Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), the dark Hollywood satire The Day of the Locust (1975), and the brutal thriller Marathon Man (1976), each of which was distinctly different, yet clearly the product of an artistic mind with a penchant for stories about outsiders and the dispossessed. But, then came Honkytonk Freeway (1981), a deeply misguided project that Schlesinger helmed as an experiment in large-scale comedy that became a box-office fiasco. He redeemed himself somewhat with the spy thriller The Falcon and the Snowman (1985), but his position as a cutting-edge auteur straddling the fine line between art cinema and the mainstream was certainly tenuous as the Hollywood industry retreated deeper and deeper into more conservative, overtly commercial territory.
That combination of factors is one of the primary explanations for how Schlesinger ended up directing The Believers, a supernatural horror-thriller about a widowed psychologist and his young son who get embroiled in a mystery surrounding a murderous cult. It would seem completely out of keeping with Schlesinger's previous work, except that he had already displayed a penchant for shifting among different genres and a willingness to experiment with style and tone. In interviews he has expressed his admiration for thrillers and horror films, and he went on to make several more, including Pacific Heights (1990) and Eye for an Eye (1996), so in a way The Believers opened a new path in his career, albeit not the one for which he will be most remembered.
And, while it will never be held in the same esteem as Schlesinger's greatest films, The Believers is a solid piece of genre work that manipulates its familiar material in interesting ways. Martin Sheen stars as Dr. Cal Jamison, who moves with his elementary-age son Chris (Harley Cross) to New York City after the tragic death of his wife. He develops a romance with his divorced landlady, Jessica Halliday (Helen Shaver), much to Chris's consternation, but worse is his involvement in the police investigation of a series of ritualistic child murders headed up by the gruff Lt. McTaggert (Robert Loggia). One of the investigating detectives, Tom Lopez (Jimmy Smits), is accused, as is Oscar Sezine (Ral Dvila), who runs a recovery house. Both men are involved in Santera, an Afro-Caribbean religion whose dark double is brujera, or witchcraft (the distinctions between the two are greatly simplified and sometimes confused in the film). The obvious culprit, though, is Palo (Malick Bowens), whose glassy eyes and frozen features ensure his villainy from the moment he walks on screen, although there are hints that he has hidden accomplices.
The film was based on the 1982 novel The Religion by Nicholas Cond, which is actually a pseudonym for the writing team of Robert Rosenblum and Robert Stuart Nathan, the latter of whom became a prolific television writer and producer in the 1990s on shows like ER and Law & Order. The screenplay was penned by Mark Frost, a television writer who had spent much of the early 1980s working on episodes of the groundbreaking cop series Hill Street Blues and would go on a few years later to television infamy when he co-created Twin Peaks with David Lynch.
Schlesinger, working with famed German cinematographer Robby Mller (a regular collaborator with Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch), gives The Believers a slick polish that elevates it visually from the usual pulp material, especially in the climax, which takes place in a massive, deserted warehouse sliced through with sharp beams of light from the rafters. Some critics have framed The Believers as the third entry in a loose "New York Trilogy," and while that is certainly stretching Schlesinger's auterist bona fides, it is true that he has a real feel for urban spaces and how to employ them effectively. Right from the opening shot Schlesinger works to defamiliarize the everyday, and some of the film's best moments use city spaces to suggest a seething netherworld just beneath the concrete surfaces. He gets good performances from Sheen and Harley Cross, who develop a meaningfully strained father-son relationship, especially as it relates to Cal's romance with Jessica, and that realistic familial dynamic turns Chris's eventual victimization into more than just a plot point. The Believers is not superior genre material, but it works for what it is and offers a few genuine surprises, including a truly disquieting final shot that makes good on the horror film's promise that evil is never fully eliminated, but only temporarily waylaid.
Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © MGM / Olive Films
Overall Rating: (3)
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