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'The Believers' (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 10, 1987

In basements and abandoned buildings all around Manhattan, a feverish mumbo jumbo is being whispered. And no chicken or goat is safe. Signs of bloody rituals -- half-burnt candles, beaded conch shells, the drippy heads of animals -- begin turning up everywhere. But no one appears particularly disturbed -- after all, what's a few decapitated cats in Central Park -- until a couple of young boys are discovered surrounded by the same artifacts, their bodies carved up with surgical precision and their hearts removed. This, as they say, is the sort of thing that gets your attention.

Directed by John Schlesinger from a screenplay by Mark Frost, "The Believers" is a bizarre, occult thriller about the implications of religious faith. And, though it doesn't expand upon its shock tactics as much as it would like to or make its theological points, the movie's dread atmosphere begins to seep into your head.

The story Schlesinger tells is an intricate one, and he builds the tension slowly, making sure we've been lured deep into his trap before he springs it. It is centered on Cal (Martin Sheen), a psychologist who helps policemen deal with job-related stress, and his 7-year-old son Chris (Harley Cross). Chris and his dad have just recently returned to New York following the sudden death of the boy's mother in a freakish accident. (Nothing more need be said here except that sometimes crying over spilled milk may be excused.) When the first body is found, one of the cops, a Hispanic detective named Lopez (Jimmy Smits), tangles with the cultists, has his shield stolen, and freaks. Now they can get to him, he says. "And you can't stop them," he screams. "You can't do anything."

Smits, who has shown himself to be a subtly weighty performer on NBC's "L.A. Law," gives Lopez's tremors the real sweat and panic of delirium. This guy is truly terrified, and after he's carted off to Bellevue, Cal is called in to help cool him off.

Schlesinger connects Cal to the voodoo killers through Lopez, but there are other, earlier connections. Chris, it seems, has long been singled out for special attention. By his side at all times is a witch-doctory-looking doll -- it reminded me somewhat of a ceramic Mr. Potato Head -- that was given to him when he visited an Indian tribe with his parents and their friends, Kate (Elizabeth Wilson) and Donald (Lee Richardson).

The doll, which is a bit of a red herring -- it's never linked directly to the cultish goings-on -- is only one of the sinister artifacts in the film. In "The Believers," Schlesinger, who also directed "Midnight Cowboy" and, most recently, "The Falcon and the Snowman," doesn't like looking at things head-on; he wants us to absorb them subliminally, to soak them up through our pores. And here he places objects -- icons, voodoo paraphernalia, crucifixes and such -- right on the outer edge of our field of vision so that everything, it seems, is seen out of the corner of the eye. Schlesinger does a neat job of undermining our sense of security -- he makes everything, even everyday objects, look creepy and threatening.

Schlesinger's technique is sneakily invasive. You're manipulated but you're never as aware of it as you might be in other films. He doesn't tighten the screws with the master-torturer's style that a director like Alan Parker prides himself on. Schlesinger's work maintains its human dimensions. Though his material is supernatural, he keeps his feet planted solidly in reality; he grounds it, and his approach makes you look harder at what's in front of you, at what you think you're seeing.

Yet, though the movie gets you going, it doesn't really transcend its witchcraft-genre limitations. The religion of the voodoo murderers is a scrambled-up mixture of Catholicism and African mythology called Santeria, which came to the West with slavery. Santeria, in its essence, is no less crazy a faith than any other, but a group of power-mad westerners, headed by a Donald Trump-like real estate magnate (Harris Yulin), have distorted it to promote their own ends, including human sacrifice -- the good Santerians kill only animals -- in their blood rites.

Schlesinger's purpose in laying out this material is to point up the wacky fanaticism that lurks on the fringe of all religions. (There's a scene in church with Chris and his father lighting prayer candles over a sore-riddled body of Christ laid out on the cross that makes the point all too vividly.) But it's also about the power of faith. When the shaman/devil figure Palo (Malick Bowens), a regal-looking African whose eyes turn sky-blue when the spirit is within him, casts a spell on Cal's lover Jessica (Helen Shaver) the power of suggestion is potent. (I won't give anything away, but you think you've had skin problems before!) Believing, or so the movie suggests, is seeing.

In the past, Schlesinger has gotten some terrific work from his actors, but only Robert Loggia, who brings his usual profane exuberance and bite to the role of Police Lt. McTaggert, and Richard Masur, as Cal's attorney, do much with their parts. As the dedicated, loving Cal, Martin Sheen is dour and dimensionless. Some of his scenes with Chris are affecting, but Sheen doesn't seem to know how to shade his emotions; he's a one-note actor -- all heartfelt conviction and sincerity. And though Helen Shaver looks sleek and enthralling, there's a weariness to her acting here. She's stale.

If the performances in the film were better, some of the problems with the material, especially at the finish, might be overlooked. But the movie's finale -- its ultimate and penultimate ones -- only brings all the mystical garbage crashing down around our heads. After unspooling his complicated yarn, Schlesinger is left with only the dirty business of tying up the loose ends. And he goes about it halfheartedly, half-knowing, perhaps, how routinely within its genre it sits. Still, it's an honest, disquieting, anxious-making thriller. It has images that keep bubbling back into your head. It'll scare you, even if you don't believe.

The Believers, at area theaters, is rated R and contains nudity and scenes of violence.

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