The Believers (1987) Retrospective

After his wife Lisa dies from an accidental electrocution, psychologist Cal Jamison relocates with his young son, Chris, from Minneapolis to New York City, where Cal begins working as a police psychologist for the New York City Police Department. The city has been plagued by a series of brutal, ritualistic child murders. The first victim is a young boy found murdered in an abandoned movie theater. A policeman named Tom Lopez frantically phones in the discovery of the body, and claims the crimes are being committed by members of an Hispanic cult practicing a malevolent version of brujería. Cal is appointed to examine Tom, who raves about the cult’s powerful leader.

A second victim is found eviscerated on a makeshift altar beneath a dock in Staten Island. Cal begins to inquire about brujería to Carmen, his housekeeper and nanny, who practices a benevolent form of it, leaving protection charms in the apartment for Cal and Chris. The following day, Tom, paranoid and being followed by mysterious men, stabs himself to death in a diner. Later, Cal and his new girlfriend, Jessica, attend a party where a mysterious Caribbean man, Palo, attempts to steal a necklace from Jessica; shortly before, Jessica had left her compact in the bathroom, and unbeknownst to Jess

ica, Palo rubs the pad with his fingers. When Cal returns home, he finds Carmen performing a ritual on Chris, and angrily throws her out of the house, despite the fact that she assures him she is attempting to protect him.

Chris accompanies his affluent Aunt Kate and Uncle Dennis on a trip to stay at their country home. Meanwhile, Cal and Jessica consult Oscar Sezine, a friend of Tom’s, who believes the cult is planning a ritualized murder for the summer solstice in four days time. Oscar performs a purification ritual in an attempt to ensure the safety of Chris, whom he worries may be targeted as a sacrifice for the solstice. The next morning, Jessica finds a boil on her face and falls ill. Before departing to reunite with Kate, Dennis, and Chris in the country, Cal receives a frantic phone call from police lieutenant Sean McTaggert. Cal arrives at McTaggert’s apartment, finding it in disarray, and McTaggert seated with a gun, rambling in a paranoid manner. He shows Cal a photo and secret file he uncovered documenting elite businessman Robert Calder’s ritual murder of his own son.

Cal leaves with the file at McTaggert’s insistence. After he leaves, McTaggert commits suicide. Meanwhile, Jessica has a panic attack after the boil on her face bursts baby spiders break free from the wound. While Cal tends to Jessica in the hospital, Kate leaves him a voice message that she has changed her plans and is going to return Chris to him, but the message is cut short. Unaware Kate has called, Cal departs the hospital with his friend Marty, who drives him to Kate and Dennis’s country house. Upon arriving, Dennis tells Cal that Kate has gone to a 24-hour grocery store. In the living room, Dennis recounts he and Kate’s travels to the Caribbean when Kate was a graduate student, and how they witnessed the power of a human sacrifice. Palo and Calder then enter the room, along with a number of other cultists, urging Cal to join, and stating that Chris has been predestined to become a sacrifice.

Cal flees the house through an upstairs window after finding Chris no longer in his room. In the boathouse, Cal finds Kate’s dead body before he is knocked unconscious by Palo. Cal is driven to an abandoned factory, where Chris’s ritual murder is to be carried out among the cult. Cal thwarts the sacrifice by stabbing Dennis to death, and Marty, who followed them to the warehouse, comes to Cal’s aid, shooting various cultists from an upper landing. Calder abducts Chris and the two ascend to the top of the warehouse in a freight elevator. Marty is incapacitated with a blowpipe dart by Palo, but not before he severely burns Palo’s face, blinding him. Cal manages to chase Calder into a storage room, stabbing him to death before retrieving Chris. Cal puts Chris down and a blinded Palo attacks Cal, but falls off the scaffolding when Chris coaxes him toward him and is impaled on rebar below. Cal carries Chris and they escape from the warehouse.

Some time later, Cal, Jessica (who is fully recovered from her attack), and Chris go to Move to a farm. In the barn loft, Cal finds a shrine adorned with various sacrificed animals. He is approached by Jessica from below, who admits responsibility, telling him they “will be safe now” as Cal looks on in shock.

Based on Nicholas Conde’s novel The Religion, The Believers tells the story of recently widowed police psychologist Cal Jamison (Martin Sheen) and his young son (Harley Cross), who arrive in New York only to become entrapped in the world of mystic religions. When a cop (Jimmy Smits) he’s treating dies amid questionable circumstances (how’s a snake slithering among your intestines for questionable circumstances?). Jamison realizes he’s in deeper than he first imagined, as his housekeeper Carmen (Carla Pinza) reveals she practices Santeria.

It’s not Santeria causing the problem, however, but Brujeria, whose believers partake in evil doings, among them child sacrifice, in search of personal gain. When members of the cult mark Jamison’s son as the next sacrifice and afflict Shaver’s skin, the unreligious Jamison looks within himself and to Santeria to save his son.

“We made a very strong point in the movie of separating this mad cult, which is sacrificing children, from the practices of Santeria, which is, in New York City, a very important part of the Hispanic community.” Sheen explains, prefacing his own view of religions. “I am a practicing Catholic. I believe a lot of things, but I don’t know anything. I would be a fool to criticize anyone else’s beliefs or the way they choose to practice their faith. I remain open in heart and mind to anyone’s form of worship. and that includes Santeria.”

“I must emphasize that there is a distinction between Santeria, which we treat, I hope, with a good deal of care and respect, and Brujeria, which is the practice of black magic,” adds Schlesinger. “We haven’t gone as deeply into Santeria as probably any true Santera would like, but we’ve been as true to it as we possibly could under the circumstances.”

“My clearest memories of The Believers are what a great guy Martin Sheen was,” says Harley Cross, who plays Sheen’s son-coincidentally, also a target of Santeria cultists. “We shot it in Toronto, and my dad really cared more about his client than the average manager would, and he made it prohibitively expensive for them to waste my time. They brought me in, used me and that was that. He worked a deal where he paid for me to be at horse camp on my off time. So I was riding horses all day and when they were ready for me, I would get off my horse and go to work. It was a great time shooting that thing and working with all those great people.”

Schlesinger did extensive research into “the religion,” as it is referred to by its practitioners. Initially the book’s authors helped with the research. Schlesinger pointed out that Nicholas Conde is a pseudonym for two writers who had researched the book by conducting interviews.

“We realized early on that there was a closed door to any of us who just walked into a botanica in East Harlem and asked what certain things were used for,” said the director. “Information is quite hard to get until they trust you. I suspect that Santeria is surrounded by so much secrecy just because of tradition. We began to gather some facts, much of which came from our actors themselves. Carla Pinza, who plays maid Carla Ruiz in the film, became our advisor. She herself is an initiate priestess of Santeria.

“I became intrigued by the whole thing,” Schlesinger added. “Not that I believe in it myself. I feel quite secure with my own beliefs. But I didn’t want in any way to misrepresent their religion for theatrical reasons.” Schlesinger stressed in the film that Santeria is a force for good. It is Brueria, the practice of black magic, that is at the root of the story’s evil.

The film was carefully plotted by Schlesinger to avoid gratuitous blood or violence. “I wanted to make an audience film,” he said, “I wanted them to leave on the edge of their seats. I don’t like slasher films. I don’t go to them and I don’t make them. I am interested in the dark side of things like a lot of directors are. We did the film with as much good taste as we could, but we knew that we would have to present certain visceral shocks.”

“I don’t like gratuitous violence,” Schlesinger says, explaining why he suppressed the urge to bathe The Believers in blood. “Absolutely. We wanted to imply as much as we could without it becoming too explicit and appalling. The actual ideas are really horrifying. The question was how to make it possible for an audience to witness it without it being so uncomfortable as to be impossible to watch. If we literally showed child sacrifice, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”

“The Believers” was dealing with an improbable, not totally believable story, you know, the idea that people can be sold, taken in by that particular aspect of religion that they do actually something bad to themselves as a result of it. The film had some things that I liked very much, I like thrillers that are about things that I’m frightened of. It’s a way of getting back at me; I’m quite frightened of the idea of spiders pushed into the body, or that somebody can put a spell on you. I suppose some things are possible and I was attracted to the movie because of that. – John Schlesinger

“This is much different,” the Sheen says. “I knew John had a method of doing the material that would very clearly raise it up to an ‘A’ level that would not be exploitative in any fashion. There was good cinema technique being done here.” As The Believers becomes more intense and the pace more frantic, Schlesinger literally lets it all come to a head when the spiders erupt from Shaver’s face. There’s precious little blood, yet audiences are genuinely scared as opposed to physically grossed-out. The notion of spiders emerging from beneath one’s own skin is psychologically repulsive and terrifying-and Schlesinger elicits more goosebumps and screams through simple expectation than buckets of bright red fake blood ever could.

“I didn’t know how much I was acting when the spiders were walking around my face,” recalls Shaver of her arachnid experience. “That was kind of an improvised form of acting, like, ‘Oh, God, can I stay still while they’re doing this?’ It took six hours of close-ups.”

“I watched some of that.” Sheen recalls, referring to Shaver’s scene. But he downplays the effect of audience-oriented FX on an actor while a scene rolls before the camera. “You have to understand, when you’re doing work day to day for five months, you realize that a film is done in small increments. I think The Believers is a frightening film, but we sat there and talked about anything but what we actually did. Helen was getting the appliance put on and we were talking about spirituality or something.”

One of the more horrifying moments on screen is when Helen Shaver has a group of spiders hatch from inside her face. The effect was created by Kevin Hayney after extensive experimentation. Makeup master Dick Smith recommended Hayney, one of his former students, for the job. Smith had worked with Schlesinger on both MIDNIGHT COWBOY and MARATHON MAN.

The spider sequence was considerably longer originally. “The scene became more of a fantasy,” explained Schlesinger, “once they came out of her face. She imagined she was covered in spiders and everything in the room was alive with spiders. I cut it all because it just seemed too much. We thought that we had such a horrifying moment that we didn’t need more. The only shot that remains from that part is the one spider on the telephone cord which was a rather large tarantula.”

Shaver’s bursting blister had to be very carefully arranged. Using a pair of tweezers, the spiders were placed in the orifice of a small tube. A jet of air was used to push the spiders out of the wound. “We put two spiders in because we thought that two coming out in one shot would be more frightening,” said Schlesinger. “The person who was the bravest and most professional of all was actor Helen Shaver. It was one of the requirements of the role. We couldn’t do it with mechanical spiders and we couldn’t do it with doubles.”


Directed by
John Schlesinger

Produced by
John Schlesinger
Beverly J. Camhe
Michael Childers

Written by
Mark Frost

Based on
The Religion
by Nicholas Conde

Martin Sheen as Cal Jamison
Helen Shaver as Jessica Halliday
Harley Cross as Chris Jamison
Robert Loggia as Lieutenant Sean McTaggert
Jimmy Smits as Tom Lopez
Malick Bowens as Palo
Elizabeth Wilson as Kate Maslow
Harris Yulin as Robert Calder
Lee Richardson as Dennis Maslow
Richard Masur as Marty Wertheimer

Music by J. Peter Robinson

Cinefantastique v18n01

3 thoughts on “The Believers (1987) Retrospective

  1. I don’t think I have ever seen the critics and the public turn on a film as quick as they did this film. In it’s first week it was acclaimed as an amazing thriller, top notch, a must see. A week later it was exploitative trash that also super racist. I remember being like “huh?” Still amazes me

    Liked by 1 person

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