Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 54 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: John Schlesinger
Written by: Mark Frost
(based on the novel THE RELIGION by Nicholas Conde)
Starring: Martin Sheen, Helen Shaver, Harley Cross, Robert Loggia & Jimmy Smits
This is one of those films that has a fantastic premise, but squanders the promise away by not taking advantage of it. Based on a 1982 novel, THE BELIEVERS was a financial success, but critics and audiences said that it was an average cult-satanic thriller. I really was hoping to dig it a lot, but by the end of the film, I had to agree with the majority. This is just average at best. Topped with overacting, convoluted plot-twists and a lackluster ending, THE BELIEVERS falls short of being great or even good.
Cal Jamison is a psychiatrist who has just suffered a terrible loss. His wife died in an accident involving some liquid and a faulty coffee machine. Trying to get a fresh start on life, Cal and his young son, Chris, move to New York City. His move coincides with the sacrificial deaths of young children. It appears that a cult is on the loose on New York and they’re eyeballing Chris as a potential sacrifice. Anybody who crosses them winds up being punished in some horrible way, which usually results in death or agonizing pain. Can Cal stop the cult? Will he save his child? Is Voodoo creepy as hell? Also, will you care about any of this by the time the overlong running time has concluded. The answers are: maybe, maybe, definitely, and probably not.
One of the many flaws gracing this could-have-been-so-much-better film involves Martin Sheen’s acting. I really wish the director or any of the cast members told him to dial it back. He seems to overdo every emotion he’s trying to portray. When he’s curious, he’s REALLY curious. When he’s angry, he yells every single syllable with emphasis! I would say that there were other emotions involved, but aside from two scenes of sadness and one moment of love, those are the only traits of his character. So what about this angry/curious man’s young child. He’s one of the more annoying kid actors I’ve seen in cinema. Not quite to the level of Bob from HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY, but very close! As far as the side characters go, they exist merely to further the plot along. This includes the love interest, the superstitious housekeeper, and Jimmy Smits in a brief role.
As far as the script itself goes, there are a few good ideas at play. Some genuinely creepy scenes involve a growing zit that has a nasty surprise in store for a poor woman and Jimmy Smits’ demise is pretty damn gruesome. Things get bogged down in mundane details and some contrived plot twists that all lead up to an ending that gives new meaning to the phrase “over-the-top.” This is the only example of a film that goes from brooding occult thriller to 80’s action cheese in the final 20 minutes. It’s absurd and feels out-of-place. To make matters even worse, the epilogue feels tacked on and worthless as if the director was going for one last shock and failed.
With all this complaining, one may think that I hated THE BELIEVERS. Actually, I thought the ritual ceremonies themselves and some of the atmosphere were great. The set design and cinematography were quite good as well. This is a professionally made movie that exhibits really solid filmmaking as far as style is concerned. Things begin to go sour where the bad acting and silly script are concerned. The film is too long as well. It’s nearly stretched out to two hours and there simply isn’t enough content to fill it up without dragging.
In the end, THE BELIEVERS is a film that could use a solid remake to better all the qualities that just aren’t that good with this 80’s version. There are a few creepy moments and some very cool ideas, but for the most part, it’s a missed opportunity that could have wound up being a forgotten horror classic of the 80’s. I don’t feel bad about watching it, but I certainly won’t be revisiting THE BELIEVERS in the future.