Long-time Outposter and now Retro Review machine Wrenage is back, doing what he does best, bringing us a review of another blast from the past, The Believers.
Now I’m The Believers
Watching Martin Sheen onscreen is challenging. Apocalypse Now is such an iconic film that Sheen carries the baggage of Coppola’s classic with him whenever he appears in other movies. Therefore, Sheen never disappears into a role for me. He is always Captain Willard.
Nevertheless, Sheen does solid work in The Believers (1987). This review will avoid spoilers because The Believers is, perhaps, little known enough that a lot of people haven’t seen it, but decent enough that it qualifies as passable viewing.
Despite being passable viewing, The Believers got lost in the shuffle in 1987. It made $18 million on a $13 million budget. It got released against Harry and the Hendersons, The Untouchables, Predator, The Witches of Eastwick, Roxanne, Dragnet and Spaceballs. Meanwhile, Beverly Hills Cop 2 was still going strong, as well. That’s a fairly crowded market.
Plus, a bunch of other classic movies popped up in 1987 to further cause distraction: Lethal Weapon, Robocop, The Lost Boys… the list goes on and on.
Excuse me while I go look in a mirror and hold myself in disdain for ever convincing myself that we still have good years in movies…
…Okay, I’m back, bowed but not broken. It’s not myself I should hold in disdain. It’s Hollywood. They have forgotten the face of their fathers. As for me and my house, we watch to keep the magic alive. I’ve got a home theater. I’ve got hundreds of movies. I will spread quality films to others like a virus, and interest in shoddy films will wane, and bad filmmaking will starve as it is denied the sustenance of money. It is the only way. Even Spielberg is now remaking films that were perfect the first time. We need an updated West Side Story like we need another brand of bottled water.
Aaaaaand, back to the review…
The Believers doesn’t transcend the genre. It is generally grouped with movies like The Exorcist, The Omen, Angel Heart and the like, because the engine of its horror is religious in nature.
If I had to put The Believers into a triple feature, I’d sandwich it between Q: The Winged Serpent and Thinner. Meanwhile, its steady competence keeps it afloat in 2021. The Believers is not a bombastic assault on the senses. Its story is not incoherent. Plus, it’s not edited by a blender.
The nutshell plot of The Believers is thus: Martin Sheen plays a police psychologist who runs afoul of cultists in New York City.
Then I Saw Her Face
The cast of The Believers is not star-studded. If Martin Sheen is your leading man in a 1987 film, you know the movie is mid-tier. Nevertheless, the cast gets the job done. They inhabit their characters in a believable manner and none were unlikeable. The story is also more drama-driven than action/scare-driven, so a degree of solid acting is required to pull the whole thing off.
Haley Cross plays Sheen’s son. Cross was not a big-time child actor, but he showed up in a number of films. His biggest credit aside from The Believers is maybe playing a young Eric Stoltz in The Fly II. Cross does good work in The Believers. Child characters are always a risk. Even as a child myself, I didn’t like child characters in movies. They are often cutsie or wizen or annoying and generally immune to any real harm, so any suspense in seeing them put in dire situations is often short-circuited.
Elizabeth Wilson and Lee Richardson play Sheen’s in-laws. Wilson was around long enough to show up in everything from The Birds to The Addams Family. Oddly enough, Richardson played the bad guy in The Fly II. Maybe him and Cross formed a brief cross-generational acting troupe?
Malick Bowens plays the villain. Bowens was in The Believers after Out of Africa, which won a pile of Academy Awards in 1985, even though Back To The Future, Commando and Young Sherlock Holmes should have won every Academy Award in 1985.
Harrison Yulin plays the same type of character he always plays, a stodgy old guy. You will recognize Yulin as the judge from Ghostbusters 2. A young Jimmy Smits is also in The Believers and does a nice job playing stressed.
Robert Loggia plays Robert Loggia. Robert Loggia is another actor that has Angela Landsbury Syndrome. He looks perpetually 60-years-old no matter what his real age is according to the calendar.
Richard Masur shows up in The Believers as a lawyer with an interest in magic tricks. Finally, Helen Shaver plays the love interest. Shaver is one of those actresses that you know you’ve seen before, but you are hard-pressed to remember where. Even looking through Shaver’s credits, I recognize movies I’ve seen, but I can’t remember which part Shaver played in them.
John Schlesinger directed The Believers. Schlesinger won an Academy Award for Best Director for Midnight Cowboy and also directed Marathon Man. Schlesinger’s guiding hand is probably what provides a good deal of the movie’s steady competence.
The story of The Believers is based on a book by Nicholas Conde, who also wrote for TV, penning episodes for Law & Order. The screenplay for The Believers was written by Mark Frost. Frost wrote for Hill Street Blues and co-created Twin Peaks. He was also a co-writer on the Chris Evans Fantastic Four movies and the screenplay writer of Nightbreed.
What I also found interesting about The Believers was that it was shot by a guy named Robert Muller, who is a Dutch Cinematography. Muller also lensed Repo Man and To Live And Die In LA. Muller gives The Believers an almost Dean-Cundy look. There is a lot of blue/green background lighting with orange lighting on the faces of characters.
In fact, one could almost cross their eyes and look at The Believers as a lost John Carpenter movie. Speaking of Angela Landsbury Syndrome, John Carpenter is also a victim.
The Believers touches upon similar themes one might find in JC’s work. For example, there is a pinch of conspiracy and some slight commentary on yuppie culture. In this way, the movie might be a kissing cousin to something like They Live. Plus, The Thing alum Masur is in the movie.
I’m In Love, Now I’m The Believers
The Believers is played dead straight. I can’t remember any real levity at all. Sure, Masur is a bit comical, but it is more like cool-uncle comical than mugging-for-the-camera comical.
What else can you expect from The Believers? A few things can be teased while avoiding spoilers: a low-rent Final Destination death, a low-rent Jedi mind trick, spiders, snakes, and chicken blood.
The movie also understood how to set little things up and pay them off. None of this was earth-shattering, but Masur’s interest in magic tricks is not merely a character quirk. It actually gets used in a small way toward the end. Another noteworthy thing is that the boy is not merely a plot device. He does something proactive in the climax.
What else can be said about The Believers? The movie is a pan-fried steak. It doesn’t have the smoky flavor of grilling, nor was it specially-marinated by a fancy restaurant, but it was cooked to the proper temperature, and the sides are sufficiently filling.
At the end of the day, the success ratio (how many entertainment buttons a movie presses) of The Believers is similar to another movie I watched this past weekend, Underwater from 2020, starring Kristen Stewart.
Underwater was a bit better than expected and is maybe the type of movie to support. It was modestly budgeted so it didn’t need to make a billion dollars to be considered a success, plus it wasn’t a remake or a comic book film. Nevertheless, Underwater lacked a certain seasoning. For an underwater movie, it was a smidge shallow. It could have used a bit more fleshing out to increase its success ratio.
The Believers is similar. Like Underwater, The Believers is passable viewing, but it doesn’t press the full range of entertainment buttons. It isn’t quite as scary as it could be; it isn’t quite as exciting as it could be, and it isn’t quite as deep as it could be.
Nevertheless, all of the parts are there. The story and the cast kept my interest. I exited the movie satisfied and free from that low-grade feeling of being somehow cheated that accompanies a lot of current films.
Let’s go out with a song, shall we?