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Believers, The (Blu-ray Review)

3 Nov, 2014 By: Mike Clark

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time
$29.95 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R.’
Stars Martin Sheen, Helen Shaver, Robert Loggia, Harley Cross.

In one of those breezily incisive liner notes she does for Twilight Time’s releases, Julie Kirgo speculates why this John Schlesinger urban horror film (already we’re in unusual territory) vanished from the public consciousness without too many traces when other pedigreed chillers (The Exorcist, The Omen, The Shining) found wider acceptance that lasts until this day. Of course, The Believers came along significantly later, so perhaps the genre was exhausted for all but multiplex dweebs — and what’s more, screenwriter Mark Frost (adapting a Nicholas Conde novel) hadn’t yet co-created "Twin Peaks" for this picture to benefit from that marketing tool.

Yet aside from not having the kind of high-profile cast from which pedigrees are fashioned, there’s also the fact even before the movie loses a few beats on its way to a wrap-up that some may find risible, that this is one unrelievedly icky movie from the time it gives us an early-story kitchen mishap (a euphemistic word choice if there ever was one) that made a bigger impression on me at the time than even Joe D. himself did pushing those Mr. Coffee machines.

Even Ms. Kirgo herself wonders if this in all ways electric opening salvo is really connected to what happens during the rest of the movie or whether Schlesinger is just setting the table to get us in a creeped-out mood (if so, it works). In any event, a lot of the supporting characters here also endure abject personal pain (physical and mental) in a movie that not only deals with human sacrifice for religious reason but the ritualistic inclusion of children as part of the process. We also get a scene of high-test self-mutilation by a familiar actor and further mayhem involving an open facial sore — none of this exactly the stuff of knocked-down turnstiles by audiences clamoring to get in. And yet, Schlesinger, whose later career was no match for its still exciting launch years, directs this nastiness more persuasively than anything from his twilight era (one huge exception aside: Cold Comfort Farm). I remember coming out of the press screening in New York and opining to the press rep that this was a pretty good movie — and though she was subtle and professional, I’m fairly certain I saw a glimpse of disbelief pass over her face. A couple subsequent viewings have taken some of the kick out of the ick for me, but the picture does reward at least one go-round if you’re game.

Following the kitchen incident (and we’ll say no more), Martin Sheen’s police psychologist relocates to New York City from Minnesota with his young son in tow, and poor dad can’t even adapt to his job before he’s called in for the aftermath of one of these human sacrifices by a cop (Robert Loggia), who later notes that there are reasons why so many in his line of work drink. The central culprit here is a co-opting of the Afro-Caribbean Santeria belief system into a spun-off sect so sinister that even Sheen’s nominally Catholic housekeeper is putting all kinds of weird religious artifacts under the son’s bed while she’s cleaning — something fairly benign in the great scheme of things compared to what happens to several adults in the cast. Also involved is Sheen’s landlady (Helen Shaver), who gets involved with her new tenant and looks better in a negligee than (presumably) Fred Mertz would.

Sinister fellow travelers or worse in the cult include a creepy dark-skinned dude who would look right at home in Val Lewton’s I Walked With a Zombie and one of those polished public smoothies who makes New York Magazine’s cover but is obviously up to no good when we see that he’s played by frequent movie villain Harris Yulin. The paranoia level then gets to be pretty high here for obvious good reason, and it’s tough not to hear a few echoes of Rosemary’s Baby (due to the Manhattan setting) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (because members seduced by the cult get more than a little pushy when it comes to sharing the changes in their demeanors with everyone else.

Robby Muller shot this when he was in his Wim Wenders-Jim Jarmusch prime, so even from the get-go, this wasn’t anyone’s schlocky horror film. I’m not certain how Schlesinger’s interest was piqued enough for him to be was one of the producers here — any more than I am of why his career became so scattershot after, say, Marathon Man or maybe Yanks — though even at that relatively early point I sensed signs of slippage (though not in his still underrated screen take on Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust). In terms of Schlesinger’s later movies, there’s a lot more passion here than anything in Pacific Heights or The Innocent (this one I had to look up to even recall what it was) or his a final shot more frightening than The Believers’. That’s because the poor guy ended up directing Madonna in The Next Best Thing for his swan song, the next best thing to waterboarding.

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