For day 2 of the 2014 edition of Horror Movie a Day, I picked a movie that I had hovered around watching during my Video Store clerk days, but for some reason never got around to seeing. The Believers (1987, Orion Pictures) was recently added to Netflix streaming, and Twilight Time just last week put the title up for pre-order as part of their exclusive, limited edition Blu-ray Disc releases. All indications were that is was time to check this movie out.
It had strong promise right out of the gate given that it is directed by John Schlesinger who won an Oscar for Midnight Cowboy, and also directed Marathon Man, two great movies that are considered classics (Midnight Cowboy also took home the Best Picture Oscar for 1969).
This film has a strong cast with Martin Sheen, Helen Shaver, Robert Loggia and Jimmy Smits. I mean right there you have two future West Wing TV Presidents (Bartlet and his successor Santos) which makes me wonder if later when actors reunite do they ever go "hey, remember when we worked together on The Believers?".
[Possible SPOILER although it happens in the first 5 minutes] The opening scene is really effective as Sheen and his son (played by Harley Cross) watch their wife/mother get electrocuted in a pool of spilled milk thanks to a short-circuited coffee machine. They say breakfast is the most important meal the day, but in this case it means a painful and shocking death (pun intended). Right away we have one of the key archetype horror characters, someone haunted by the death of his wife that he feels responsible for because it was Sheen who spilled that deadly pool of milk. The movie, unlike others, doesn't waste the audiences time by spelling it out for us. It successfully gets this information across through a few shots of melancholic looks by Sheen. He is in fact crying over spilled milk on the inside.
Sheen is a therapist who works for the NYPD and gets involved in a case investigating the grisly death of children that have seem to have been sacrificed in a cult ritual. He counsels cops, so his involvement on the case starts when a detective (Smits) loses his mind and almost blows his own head off at one of the crime scenes. There are nefarious forces at work here, and they seem to have a keen interest in Sheen's son - although he seems completely oblivious to that fact for most of the film. His housekeeper on the other hand knows what's going on.
The Believers is an atmospheric horror that plays upon forces that aren't all that apparent to the main characters. There is no obvious homicidal killer or force that stalks Martin Sheen, but there are voodoo forces at work, strong enough to send President Santos..I mean Jimmy Smits...into an insane fit of suicidal rage. Sheen's domestic worker has knick-knacks and does chants to keep the family safe from this unseen menace which doesn't bode well for her continued employment. Children keep showing up around New York City gutted from cult rituals and scenes involving effects from curses placed upon Helen Shaver and Robert Loggia heighten the tension and intensify the mystery appropriately. I also have to mention a strange figure who breaks into a bizarre dance at a black tie event (supposedly in New York City, but the establishing shot is clearly City Hall in Toronto which before the international exposure of Rob Ford was just a unique looking, unknown building) whose eyes go up into the back of his head and seems to be the key to all the strange events.
The movie has the look and direction to make it a tense and effective horror, unfortunately the story never gels completely and gets muddled during he second act before clearing up somewhat for the climax. The cast is great, the direction is great, but they can only do so much with a story that is difficult to engage with.
You definitely know you're in the 1980s here as everybody smokes indoors and in cabs (at the aforementioned black-tie party, a woman hands out free cigars, and it seems every single guest is chain smoking something) and Sheen spanks his child in the middle of a New York street, an act in 2014 that would probably get him arrested and charged - possibly even result in his child being taken away from him.
I took a look at the star ratings on Letterboxd, and they seem to alternate from 4+ stars, or 2- like mine (Leonard Maltin gives it high praise with 3 stars out of 4). Ultimately this movie didn't impress me much, although it does have its moments (especially the opening and a particular scene between Loggia and Sheen) that make it worth checking out.