THE BELIEVERS R, 1987, 114 minutes, HBO Home Video, $89.95.
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 severed heads of animals -- begin turning up everywhere. But no one seems particularly disturbed until a couple of young boys are discovered surrounded by similar 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. The story Schlesinger tells is an intricate (and fairly ludicrous) one and he's careful to build the tension slowly. It centers on Cal (Martin Sheen), a psychologist who helps police officers deal with job-related stress, and his 7-year-old son Chris (Harley Cross). Cal becomes embroiled in the puzzling murders when he's brought in to help cool off a young detective named Lopez (Jimmy Smits) who's freaked out over a brush with the murderous cultists. Schlesinger does a neat job of undermining our sense of security -- he makes everything, even everyday objects, look creepy and threatening. His technique is sneakily invasive. You're manipulated, but you're never as aware of it as you might be in other films. In "The Believers," Schlesinger doesn't like looking at things head-on; he wants us to soak them up through our pores. Yet, though the movie gets you going, it doesn't really transcend its voodoo-genre limitations. There's a lot of mystical garbage to wade through, and the movie's finale only piles it higher. Still, at times, it's an honest, disquieting, anxious-making thriller. -- Hal Hinson
DEADLINE R, 1987, 100 min., Virgin Vision, 79.95.
A sleepwalking Christopher Walken stars in this plot-heavy polemic of a political mystery set in bullet-riddled Beirut on the eve of the Israeli invasion in 1982. Walken plays an indifferent network news reporter in this variation on "Under Fire" and "Salvador," another bloody tale of the jaded journalist recouping his conscience against war-torn backdrops. As the new guy in Beirut, he is set up by the Christian Phalangists -- or is it the Israelis or the PLO? -- when he conducts and airs an interview with a bogus Arab peacemaker. He spends the rest of the movie searching for the impostor, absorbing the horror of the violence around him, finally joining in the fray. Israel's Nathaniel Gutman directs this well-meaning but murky drama from a plodding and perplexing screenplay by Hanan Peled. The filmmakers have tried to strike the perfect balance by making a film to please all factions. Instead they please no one.
-- Rita Kempley
THE GRATEFUL DEAD: SO FAR No Rating, 1987, hi-fi stereo, 55 minutes, 6-West, $29.95.
Like a politician's ego, the Grateful Dead just keep getting bigger and bigger. Twenty years on, not a one of them is able to sing yet, but they do know a thing or two about establishing a dynamic groove. Which is what "So Far" is -- an audio-visual groove. That should hardly be surprising from a band that emerged from the psychedelic '60s, and director Lenn Dell'Amico, working with Head Dead Jerry Garcia, has done a remarkable job of wedding image to sound. This is a concert video with an internalized light show, and each song is given its own imagery. On "Playing in the Band," the band makes way for some unusually spliced historical photos. On "Lady With a Fan," 3-D computer-generated images of tarot cards and chess pieces float across a cosmic board. "Throwing Stones (Ashes to Ashes)" has some terse apocalyptic edges, while "Space" and "Rhythm Devils" seem to condense a dozen National Geographic specials into a whirlwind of split-second images (impressive but also dizzying). Since the songs have a dreamy, droning quality, their video expansions are usually quite apt and (dare we say) mind-expanding. The seven songs are played without interruption, and since the music is excellently recorded and was mixed by Garcia, even non-Heads won't dread this particular night of the living Dead. -- Richard Harrington
GOTHIC R, 1987, 87 minutes, Vestron Video, $79.98.
The English director Ken Russell may be the most literal of modern filmmakers. And for a visionary this is a tad problematic. "Gothic" tells the story of Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne), Percy Shelley (Julian Sands) and Mary Godwin (Natasha Richardson), the future Mary Shelley and author of "Frankenstein," during a weekend in June of 1816 at Byron's Via Diodati. It was over this stretch of days, Mary Shelley wrote, that the guests spent their evenings telling each other ghost stories while a storm raged outside. "Thus, out of electricity and apparitions, my monster came to be." According to Russell's version there was more than storytelling going on. The agenda is roughly what we might expect from, say, a quiet weekend in the country with Keith Richards. And all this hysterical slithering decadence is presented in a manner that suggests outtakes from a Whitesnake video (the chief difference being that the videos aren't about great poets). The result is a polymorphously silly movie that has about as much claim to historical accuracy as those trips in the Way-Back Machine from "The Bullwinkle Show." For their appearance here and in the upcoming film "Siesta," Byrne and Sands get credit for being awful in possibly the two most awful movies of the year. Richardson manages a few touchingly forlorn moments. And there's at least a hint in her performance that she's made uncomfortable by all this nonsense. How could she not be? -- Hal Hinson
SUMMER R, 1986, in French with English subtitles, 98 minutes, Pacific Arts Video, $79.98.
Inveterate girl-watcher Eric Rohmer focuses on a lovelorn secretary's blue vacation in this pensive portrait of loneliness and heartache. It's pure Rohmer, a verbal valentine to French womanhood, youth and the glories of Gallic geography. It is the fifth in his series of "Comedies and Proverbs," a collection of biographies that includes "Pauline at the Beach." With its hazy seaside setting and sandy hues, "Summer" resembles "Pauline," but its depressed heroine Delphine is the antithesis of the bodacious Pauline. And Rohmer captures her exactly, chronicling her listless, indecisive nature with pretty intimacy. Marie Riviere gives a vivid performance as the skittish Delphine, who becomes disconsolate when her vacation plans fall through. We join her on her search for the perfect alternative -- and the perfect man. -Rita Kempley