Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #539
Number of Views: One
Release Date: June 10, 1987
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $18,753,438
Running Time: 114 minutes
Director: John Schlesinger
Producers: John Schlesinger, Beverly J. Camhe, Michael Childers
Screenplay: Mark Frost
Based on The Religion by Nicholas Conde
Special Effects: Kevin Haney
Cinematography: Robby Müller
Score: J. Peter Robinson
Editing: Peter Honess
Studio: Orion Pictures
Distributor: Orion Pictures, MGM Home Entertainment
Stars: Martin Sheen, Helen Shaver, Robert Loggia, Richard Masur, Harley Cross, Jimmy Smits, Elizabeth Wilson, Harris Yulin, Lee Richardson, Carla Pinza, Raúl Dávila , Malick Bowens, Janet-Laine Green
Suggested Audio Candy
J. Peter Robinson “The Believers”
There’s nothing hoodoo about voodoo. Black magic has long since cast its spell over me and there are few things that encourage me from my pelt so cunningly than ritualistic Satan worship. Witchcraft has long since been a staple of horror and the likes of British studios Hammer and Amicus explored its themes on numerous occasions during their most flourishing creative period. The Afro-American strain, in particular, has always unsettled me from my primary introduction to Guy Hamilton’s Live & Let Die and spine-chilling shaman Baron Samedi became a mainstay of my nightmares throughout my adolescence.
Then, in 1988, Wes Craven hit the rusted nail on the head (and into Bill Pullman’s love spuds) with his rightly celebrated occult thriller The Serpent & The Rainbow and the similarly fearsome Dargent Peytraud took his place in my phantasms. Craven’s film was dripping with foreboding atmosphere and enough hellish imagery and stifling set-pieces to keep all but the most jaded horror buffs awake at night but, unbeknownst to many of us, Alan Parker and John Schlesinger had already laid the tracks a year previous with their own spirited takes on voodoo magic, Angel Heart and The Believers. While the latter made its mark at the box office, to the tune of almost $20m in receipts, it has regrettably since been overshadowed by the company it keeps.
Based on Nicholas Conde’s 1982 novel The Religion, it may lack the lasting imagery of Craven’s blockbuster or sheer heft of Parker’s undisputed classic but its tone is every bit as dark and disquieting. It tells the story of police psychologist Cal Jamison (Martin Sheen) who, after witnessing the freak accident that tragically claims the life of his wife Lisa (Janet-Laine Green), vacates Minneapolis in favor of a fresh start in New York with his beloved son Chris (Harley Cross). Still deeply traumatized by the loss of his soul mate, he sets aside his own grief for the sake of his boy and attempts to piece together the fragments of his shattered existence.
His fortunes appear to be on the upturn when he befriends his landlady Jessica (Helen Shaver) and the pair don’t attempt to deny their chemistry and soon find themselves in the throes of a passionate and emotionally charged affair. She is both aware of his heartache and fully supportive of his ongoing passage through the grieving process and Cal considers it high time he move on and fill the void that has threatened to engulf him for the past nine months. However, Chris is less enthused by her intrusion and struggling to come to terms with the sudden loss of his mother in his own way.
However, attempting to play happy families is the very least of Cal’s concerns. You see, a spate of ritualistic child murders has broken out and the police are soundly baffled by these atrocities. Moreover, one of their own, in-too-deep detective Tom Lopez (Jimmy Smits in a star-making turn) is implicated in these wrong-doings and perilously close to relinquishing the very last of his dashed marbles. Even more dubiously, it becomes clear to Cal that his own flesh and blood is in clear and present danger once his son happens across a discarded Caribbean gemstone and attracts the undesirable attention of Cuban cultist Palo (a wonderfully wild-eyed Malick Bowens).
Although initially dismissive of such hocus pocus, investigating officer Lieutenant McTaggert (a typically exuberant and charismatic Robert Loggia) is soon left cursing his pessimism as he too is drawn into this worrying web of sacrilegious skulduggery and Cal is fast running out of friends to lean on as Palo begins to make his life and those of all around him a living hell. His attorney and loyal man-at-arms Marty (the ever glorious Richard Masur) represents his last fading hope as he battles to free himself from the curse before matters are taken out of his trembling hands.
Sheen is perfectly cast as our likeable lead as emoting is never something that he struggles with. Careering towards utter desolation and revealing more and more vulnerability as events transpire, we genuinely care for his plight and every muscle in his face is called into action as he sells his character magnanimously throughout. Aside from his truly commanding performance, the rest of the cast are no less impressive. Smits is at absolute fever-pitch in his supporting capacity, and Bowens effortlessly convinces as the harbinger of doom.
If The Believers falls slightly short of the kind of emotional impact of both Angel Heart and The Serpent and The Rainbow, then the closing act is where any cracks begin to show. Whilst never less than tense and jam-packed with incident, it never quite goes for the jugular in the manner in which is hinted and can be accused of playing it safe, as opposed to truly obliterating our fraying last nerves. Having said that, Schlesinger is no slouch when it comes to suspense, as previously proved with excruciatingly taut thrillers Midnight Cowboy and Marathon Man, and Robby Müller’s fine cinematography supports his shadowy vision hand-in-glove.
The Believers is deserving of far greater plaudits than it ultimately received and, if nothing else, is every bit as accomplished as other more renowned works of its ilk. In over thirty years since my primary introduction to Baron Samedi, black magic still has me very much under its spell. What’s more, if my faith in voodoo was ever in any doubt whatsoever, then Schlesinger’s film sure as shit made a believer out of me.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10
Grue Factor: 2/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: If you have even the slightest aversion to creepy crawlies, then you’ll likely be inconsolable during one scene. There is a little blood and one particularly wince-inducing impaled torso but we are spared the gruesome injury detail of our sacrificial lambs and, instead, Schlesinger opts to leave these atrocities to our imagination. He is far more magnanimous with regards to skin and Shaver gleefully disrobes for the obligatory nude scene. I can think of few better ways to accelerate the grieving process.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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