“Weird fuckin’ city ya moved into,” says police detective Robert Loggia to transplanted Manhattan shrink Dr. Cal Jamison in the 1987 horror chiller THE BELIEVERS, now on limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time/MGM/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment. And whether you believe it or not – that’s an understatement.
Based on the unnerving novel The Religion by Nicholas Conde, THE BELIEVERS, as scripted by Mark Frost, paints New York City a garish hell-on-Earth red, as it methodically unfolds the freaky trappings that comprise the dark world of Santa Sangre.
Apparently, along with butt-ugly graffiti-vandalized walls/subway cars/monuments, offensive boom boxes, annoying Woody Allen types, spell-casting Hispanic help, and dead sacrificial animal carcasses on every street corner, 1980s New York was indeed the flip side of Club Med. Jamison himself could probably use some psychiatric aid, since he’s still recovering from having accidentally electrocuted his wife – certainly the worst kitchen-and-milk death since John Larch’s in Budd Boetticher’s The Killer is Loose. Honestly, after initially viewing this movie, I could never think of Mr. Coffee in the same way again.
Jamison’s rather unpleasant above faux pas was witnessed by the doc’s already-strange son, who then goes even further off the deep end. Soon the urchin (Harley Cross) is obsessing on violent drawings of disemboweled beings, exhibiting particularly nasty tendencies toward females, cursing, throwing tantrums, running helter-skelter into traffic – in short, exactly the sick, perverted behavior one would expect from the son of Martin Sheen (who perfectly enacts the role of the sad-sack therapist).
Fortunately, not ten seconds after moving into their new Big Apple digs, Jamison is canoodling with his super-hot Patricia Neal-ish landlady Helen Shaver. So much for the grief process.
Sadly, for Sheen, the movie doesn’t end here – it spirals downward, as the plethora of chicken sacrifices escalate from fowl play to foul play – with children being substituted for Perdue fodder or, in culinary terms, tater-tottery.
Loggia’s participation is accentuated due to the fact that their lead suspect is one of their own – a previously revered top cop (Jimmy Smits), now reduced to a writhing, dementia-plagued screwball, shrieking about how “they get right inside your body.” While this didn’t seem to bother Shaver, it does torment Smits, just a human paraphrase of that real-estate standard: location, location, location.
But who are “they?” “They” are an insidious cult of black magic fantatics, who use first-born kiddies as gateways to fame and fortune. It all comes under the auspices of a phony organization called ACHE (perhaps a more suitable moniker would have been OUCH), run by a slimy Koch/Trump-ian figurehead (realized via an especially high-octane brand of oiliness Harris Yulin). Their satanic key to power is the extremely creepy black leader Palo (Malick Bowens), brought to America from his mysterious primitive foreign homeland. Now, before you can say “Kenyan socialist,” let me stop you cold. This dude is coming from an entirely different direction, and, by that I mean he’s got Michele Bachmann crazy eyes.
Palo’s force is not only lethal, but excruciatingly painful. To be possessed (as Smits, Loggia and others graphically display) is not a pleasant experience. You twist and turn and sweat profusely, grabbing your stomach in screaming agony. I don’t know how else to describe it except by relegating the curse to desperately requiring a rest room whilst on the subway (sneakily adding a touch of realism to this accurate and not uncommon New York phenomenon).
There are many other cultural and scientific overlaps in this movie – the fatal price one pays for being a diss-believer; perhaps the one that comes immediately to mind is ably demonstrated by Shaver, who, in a brilliant show of powder-puffery, draws the fine line between cosmetology and entomology (and far be it for me to give away the gooseflesh-raising climax, which leaves its outcome up to audience – the options being bad or worse).
It also comes as no surprise to me that this prejudiced, frightening depiction of my hometown was orchestrated by none other than John Schlesinger. Ever since Midnight Cowboy, I pretty much suspected that the director was less than keen on Fun City, but THE BELIEVERS takes this metropolis of festering evil idea to a new level (this flick is so nasty that lawyers are presented as good guys!); concisely put, it’s his scariest movie since Darling.
I have to admit though that I enjoy this pic a lot more now than I did back in ’87. Back then, we were inundated with devil-approved contemporary malevolent fare, including Angel Heart, The Serpent and the Rainbow, The Sect and the Reagan Administration. More than a quarter of a century later, THE BELIEVERS is a squeamish cinematic roller-coaster ride with much to offer. Aside from the aforementioned cast, there’s also excellent support from Elizabeth Wilson, Richard Masur, Lee Richardson and Raul Davila. There’s also some spectacular camerawork by the great Robby Muller – and, to this point, I must take umbrage with THE BELIEVERS’ original distributor, Orion Pictures. Back in 1987, the print I saw was grainy, washed-out and tinged with a barbecue pallor that I surmised was the director and d.p.’s conceptual intention. This was further deceptively foisted upon me by the subsequent laserdisc, which, for some bizarre reason, was time-compressed (which shouldn’t have been necessary for a 114-minute movie), full-frame (from a period in LV’s history when letterboxing was becoming the norm), and looking every bit as awful as its theatrical presentation.
Naturally, one would expect a 2014 Blu-Ray to be substantially better than a 1988 laserdisc, but this Twilight Time platter reveals a visual tapestry that transcends the first-run release. Yeah, it’s a not exactly the Manhattan of The Eddy Duchin Story, but it’s not that mess I saw way-back-when, either. Muller’s images are crisp, clear and even ebullient in its sinister palette of contrasting colors and ominous spooky lighting. The 2.0 stereo-surround audio nicely showcases J. Peter Robinson’s score, the gotcha sound effects and background music from the likes of Celia Cruz and Ruben Blades. Please also remember that this is a limited edition, and that movies in this genre tend to sell out rather fast.
Personally, I have to admit that what creeped me out about THE BELIEVERS in 1987 was the fact that while living in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, I used to regularly see the burnt-out candle (and other) remnants of Santa Sangre mishegos in the underpass leading to Emmons Avenue (a justification I chalked up to extreme ballyhoo from Orion’s publicity department, even though I knew better).
Giving a whole new meaning to the term “small fry,” THE BELIEVERS offers one the ideal Eighties Night opportunity to thoroughly confuse your friends by pairing it with the undeniably lesser (and cornier) Children of the Corn. After all, there are two sides to everything.
THE BELIEVERS. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; Stereo-surround 2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT # 903RJMGM0189. UPC# 811956020147. SRP: $29.95.
Limited edition of 3000 available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment [www.screenarchives.com].