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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Believers
The Believers
MGM // R // August 27, 2001
List Price: $14.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by J. Doyle Wallis | posted August 11, 2002 | E-mail the Author
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The Story: Cal Jameson (Martin Sheen), a psychiatrist who specializes in treating police officers, has a decent life and a great wife and son. One day he runs out of the shower when he hears the screams of his son, and before he can say "Dont cry over spilt milk", he sees his wife in the kitchen standing in a puddle of milk being electrocuted to death by a malfunctioning coffee maker... Cut to nine months later and the still mourning Jameson and his son have moved to New York and are in the process of getting settled into their new house with their pretty, but kooky landlady living across the street. Jameson finds himself quickly back at work when police officer Tom Lopez (Jimmy Smitts) is found maniacally ranting and suicidally scared at a murder scene involving a young boy with a strange black magic staging. With the aide of the grizzled detective MacTaggert (Robert Loggia), Jameson struggles to solve the case. When officer Lopez dies mysteriously leaving behind clues to a wealthy business man, Jameson and Taggert struggle with the seemingly impossible notion that this black magic is real. But, for Jameson, is the revelation going to be too late to save his own son?

The Film: Well, The Believers (1987) is a pretty lame entry into the voodoo, black magic horror film sub-genre, especially in the shadow of the superior The Serpent and the Rainbow which was released a year later. Believers exploits the old "rich people using dark magic to get ahead" plotline you see in something like Rosemary's Baby, but Polanski's film packaged its evil people in a far more surreal manner instead of the hammy, basic one Believers delivers. Speaking of hammy, West Wing may have revitalized Martin Sheens career, but Believers is a reminder of the sub-standard, off the radar work he did for twenty years in his post Apocalypse Now days. Likewise, a then pretty unknown Jimmy Smitts would probably rather forget his Believers performance which basically calls for him to snivel and panic, lay on an accent, and die with a belly full of snakes. Probably only Robert Loggia comes off good in his stereotypical tough cop role, because, although a cliche, at least he gets to say lines like "I'd like to put this monkey on the fire and fry his ass."

While the film attempts to make a stab at some message of cultural and religious misunderstanding, it is, like everything else in the film, only half-hearted and vague. Actually, it cancels itself out. Jameson fires his housekeeper because he doesn't understand and is ignorant about her strange rituals (that she is trying to protect his son), but at the same time the film itself treats Santiera and voodoo in a unrealistic and prejudiced manner. So, any message of religious bias is nil because the film deals with voodoo in a dimwitted manner reducing it to "dangerous because its foreign" mumbo jumbo and perpetuating the same old black magic prejudices. Maybe in 1950 it would be fine, but such clumsy and ignorant writing just doesn't fly anymore. Or at least it might if the film delivered on other levels. Over time, about the only thing Believers is really revered for is one great makeup effect involving a sore on someone's cheek and live spiders that emerge from it and crawl over the actors face.

Two things that catch my attention now, with more film knowledge behind me than I had when I first watched Believers as a pre-teen, is the presence of Mark Frost and Robby Muller. Frost being best known for his work as a writer, producer, and co-creator of Twin Peaks as well as a novelist with The List of 7. Its a pretty uninspired script, and its little surprise Frosts script writing seems to be better in the televised medium since Believers has that small scale feel and these days would be better suited as a straight to cable feature. Muller is one of the greatest modern cinematographers in the business, from his work with Wim Wenders on such films as Alice in the Cities, The American Friend and Paris, Texas, to Jim Jarmusch's Down By Law, Mystery Train and Dead Man, to Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, as well as Repo Man and To Live and Die in LA. But, if there was ever a phoned in performance by a master cinematographer, it would be Muller's average, completely ordinary work in Believers. I dont see any hint of the same eye I love in so many movies, so I'm lead to think Muller was just involved in the project so he could make some big studio bucks.

Director John Schlesinger is one of those late sixties/early seventies wunderkinds who went from fairly early initial success to a pretty tepid career and a spotty resume. While delivering some universally applauded films like Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man, Falcon and the Snowman and Cold Comfort Farm, Schlesinger has also made resounding duds like Eye for an Eye, Honkytonk Freeway, Pacific Heights and The Next Best Thing. And Believers belongs in Schlesinger's dud category, further providing apprehension when his name is attached to a film. You never know which Schlesinger is going to show up. The Schlesinger that directed Believers indulged the thin plot, chararicature acting, a dumb shock ending, and cliched scenes with some bits of iconography thrown in to haphazardly tie it all together.

The DVD: MGM

Picture: Anamporphic Widescreen. May be a little soft, a few spots, with some fluctuations between good scenes and ones with a tad more wear and tear. Comparable to MGMs other budget minded releases. Some minor edge enhancement, but overall an acceptable transfer.

Sound: English or French Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo with optional English, French, or Spanish subtitles. Pretty unspectacular mix and a forgettable score. Everything is fine and clear. Perhaps just a product of its age and the blandness of the audio, but I found I had to turn up my volume a little more than usual.

Extras: 20 Chapters--- Teaser Trailer (1:21 min), Theatrical Trailer (1:51 min)

Conclusion: Well, its really nothing spectacular, but its also cheap. Nice to see MGM opening up their vault, and this is truly is a case where a film probably doesn't deserve a special edition, unlike Scanners which was similarly barebones. If you are a fan, or a horror completist, the price is low so pick it up. Otherwise I strongly suggest giving it a rental because this voodoo film wont put a spell on you (Sorry for the bad pun. You may now groan or put a curse on me).

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