Reviewed Jun 21, 2012
Robert Cettl’s review:
Strange religious beliefs have long been an object of fascination and loathing because of what is often perceived as the threat they pose to established religion, particularly Christianity, and its associated moral order. It is precisely this balance of reactionary cultural paranoia and dramatic challenge to religious morality that forms the basis of the often potent and oddly downbeat thriller The Believers. The film was directed by veteran John Schlesinger at a time when his reputation was in decline and he segued towards lurid, rather bleak films (with this and Pacific Heights) which seemed intent to explore and even explode contemporary notions of moral and ethical propriety. In the case of The Believers, he was aided by a strong script by Mark Frost who would shortly refine his own sense of weirdness when he collaborated with David Lynch on Twin Peaks. What this meant for the eventual fate of The Believers was to virtually assure it of at best a footnote in the horror / thriller echelon as it had been practically dismissed as competent at best and risible at worst. Still, in the context of 1980s horror films, its bizarre and problematic religiosity makes it something of a theological curio. While it is unlikely ever to be rescued from this level it is unfair to dismiss it entirely as there is much in it which is purposefully unsettling: as an admittedly frightening vision of cultural and religious paranoia, The Believers is most intriguing.
Martin Sheen plays a police psychiatrist, happily married and with one son. In the opening sequence, his wife dies in an event which will continue to be a source of private guilt for him. With his son, he moves into a new apartment, tended to by a devoted Hispanic house-keeper. Slowly, Sheen develops a romantic interest in his new landlady (Helen Shaver), though this puts an emotional strain on his son, who has not adjusted to his mother’s death. Meanwhile, on the site of a ritual cult murder of a child, a distraught policeman (Jimmy Smits) goes into a religious frenzy and is confined before he can kill himself. Sheen is called in to talk to Smits, who believes that his life is in danger. Sheen is disbelieving but supportive and indeed soon proves to be the one person Smits contacts when he escapes custody, hoping to relay to Sheen some information. When an unusual fate besets Smits, Sheen begins to look into the supposedly benign religious sub-culture of Santeria, popular in Latin American segments of the city and even practiced by his own housekeeper. As Sheen investigates, he uncovers a bizarre cult in the middle of New York high society that seems to believe in a more malevolent form of the religion. At one such encounter, Shaver is touched by a mysterious holy man in a trance and slowly develops a sickness. In the midst of this mounting tumult, Sheen sends his son to stay with his relatives.
The Believers seems to be a film concerned with cultural otherness. However, it cannot wholly distance itself from the fear and paranoia regarding what it considers a hideous non-Christian religion and furthermore cannot really differentiate between benign and malevolent practices. Thus, it acknowledges that such ancient pre-Christian religions may have a greater touch with spiritual forces but sees this as an inherent evil and subversive because it attacks the relationship between father and son that is at the core of any Christian patriarchal society. The Christian ideal of the innocence of children is here threatened by the powerful cult, as the ritual sacrifice of children (the ultimate horror) represents the kind of exotic religious devotion that is both an affront to, and threatens to erode, Christian ideals. By equating such perverted beliefs with the monstrousness of cultural otherness, the film adopts a reactionary posture which by extension equates any alternative beliefs with threat and menace. Although this is perhaps the most problematic aspect, within the film’s own world it does convincingly examine the threat to Christianity posed by religious otherness and in the process creates a neat essay on how fanatical conviction can govern and override questions of morality: the perversion of religion. The clash of religions that is fought over the fate of innocents makes for a literal and metaphorical assessment of child sacrifice.
Hence, the film’s depiction of the cult’s excess and its ultimate repulsiveness is seen as both selfish (intended to save the adults at the expense of the child) and a bizarre inversion of the idea that God made his son for sacrifice. There are powers beyond Christian control that will seek to corrupt and pervert Christian mythology for reprehensible ends. In the face of such religious conviction and supernatural force, the film makes a point of structuring itself in terms of the steady erosion of Sheen’s belief in rationality. As a psychiatrist, he is a man of science and reason who has no room for the supernatural. Yet when faced with the power of religious belief he is forced to concede the domain of the irrational and the malevolence within it and in so doing seek protection in alternative religion. In its way then, the film examines the failure of both science and Christianity – hence, the idea of Christ’s powerlessness against is established in the first scene, as Sheen’s wife is seen wearing a cross, which does not protect her from a mere accident. The sinister challenge to Christianity unveiled here precedes the breakdown of Christian moral and ethical supremacy: with outrage more than suppressed glee. That the film opts for the resolution it does partly negates this potentially subversive posture. Nevertheless, the root of spiritual malevolence (and the source of horror here) is the threat to the Patriarchal Christian bond between father and son.