R, 114 min.
Director: John Schlesinger
Writers: Mark Frost, Nicholas Conde (novel “The Religion”)
Starring: Martin Sheen, Helen Shaver, Harley Cross, Robert Loggia, Elizabeth Wilson, Harris Yulin, Lee Richardson, Richard Masur, Carla Pinza, Jimmy Smits, Raúl Dávila, Malick Bowens, Janet-Laine Green
Do you remember video stores? I would go into a video store, and it would take me an hour to find something to watch because they had everything. Even though everything at that point was a whole lot less than it is today, it was too much. I wanted to see so much and couldn’t decide what to see. I think the current streaming services do a good job of eliminating that problem. Netflix really has an amazing amount of titles available to stream, but you only ever seem to know about a limited number of them at once. It makes choosing a title a much easier task. It also opens the possibilities up to titles you might not have considered otherwise, either because it was only on your periphery of knowledge, or you’d seen it before, but had forgotten it to some degree, or many other reasons.
“The Believers” is a thoughtful thriller/horror flick from 1987 that I’d most certainly seen before, but probably not since circa 1989. It involves a man whose wife is killed in a freak accident. He takes a job counseling New York City policemen and moves his son there to help pick up the pieces. A homicide case pulls him into a religious practice that is an amalgam of Catholicism and voodoo. This places the counselor and son in grave danger.
I always held an appreciation for this movie, even though it was never considered any sort of classic. It came out at about the same time as Wes Craven’s voodoo horror flick “The Serpent and the Rainbow”, which overshadowed it. “The Believers” practiced a frequent style of 80s horror flicks by starting its story with an incident that isn’t really related to the supernatural aspects that eventually come into play, something more mundane and ordinary than where the plot eventually leads.
In this case, it is the opening scene in which the wife is killed that gives us a more ordinary death than the horrors we are about to witness. Yet somehow, it is this death that has always struck the coldest cord with me. I think that’s because of its everyday nature. The wife quite nonchalantly electrocutes herself in the kitchen, right in front of her son. A coffee maker goes on the fritz right as she’s cleaning up a milk spill on the floor. Not realizing the milk is completing a circuit, she goes to switch off the shorting coffee maker and that’s all she wrote. It’s a perfect death that is mundane and leaves the husband helpless to do anything about it.
Of course, this scene serves to let us know that we are all vulnerable. We don’t have to get in on the wrong side of a voodoo cult to meet death. This tells us that this will not be an exploitational horror film, but one that is really trying to tackle some issues. In this case it is the issue of conformity. The man moves to New York looking for the safety of familiarity. This is what drives us all toward conformity. The religion he stumbles upon also provides this comfort of familiarity to the people who follow it. Their atrocious actions to practice their religion become secondary to them because it is an act of conformity. They might be conforming to something out of the ordinary, but the people who make up this cult are all people who have gone through the alienating act of losing a loved one. This is also what our hero goes through, yet he is still able to see the sins inherent in this religion. This can all apply to so many aspects of our real everyday lives, just like the opening scene said it would.