The Believers

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The Believers
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJohn Schlesinger
Produced byJohn Schlesinger
Beverly J. Camhe
Michael Childers
Written byMark Frost
Music byJ. Peter Robinson
CinematographyRobby Müller
Edited byPeter Honess
Distributed byOrion
Release date
  • June 10, 1987 (1987-06-10)
Running time
114 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$13 million[1]
Box office$18,753,438

The Believers is a 1987 American neo-noir horror film film directed by John Schlesinger, released in 1987 and starring Martin Sheen, Robert Loggia and Helen Shaver. It is based on the 1982 novel The Religion by Nicholas Conde.[2]


The film opens to the death scene of Lisa Jamison (Janet-Laine Green). She is electrocuted when she touches a malfunctioning coffeemaker while standing barefoot in a pool of spilled milk.[3] Following the accidental death of his wife by electrocution in Minneapolis, psychologist Cal Jamison (Martin Sheen) moves to New York City with his son Chris (Harley Cross). He finds employment as a police psychologist for the New York City Police Department. One of his patients is officer Tom Lopez, who worked undercover in infiltrating a cult and now lives in fear of the cultists.[2]

The City soon experiences a series of brutal, ritualistic child murders, supposedly committed by members of an Hispanic cult practicing a malevolent version of brujería. The paranoid ramblings of Lopez start seeming relevant to the case. The film soon starts hinting at a conspiracy involving affluent New Yorkers, such as businessman Robert Calder. Things take a turn for the worse when the cult targets Chris Jamison.[2]



Barna William Donovan notes that there were several Satanic-themed Hollywood films in the 1970s. Citing as examples The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen film series (1976-1991). But he also noted that Hollywood seemed to have lost interest in the subject by the 1980s. He cites The Believers as one of only two noteworthy films about Devil worship created in the 1980s, the other one being Angel Heart (1987). Though he notes that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) also touched on the similar subject of a demon-worshiping cult, which abducts children and offers human sacrifices.[4]

He points out that Angel Heart was a period piece set in the 1940s, and so fantastic that it limited its connections to the contemporary world of the 1980s "and its fundamentalist paranoias", while The Believers was set in that contemporary world. The villains were not, however, worshipers of the Judeo-Christian Satan. Instead they were practitioners of Santería, the legitimate Afro-Caribbean religion depicted in the film as "a cult of evil that condones human sacrifice".[4] Neither film approached the subject of the 1980s hysteria over Satanic ritual abuse, a conspiracy theory which generated sensationalist headlines in this decade. Donovan concludes that Hollywood distanced itself from the subject matter, probably because child sexual abuse was deemed an unfit subject for popcorn entertainment.[4]

According to John Kenneth Muir, the message of the film is that yuppies would do anything for success, including calling upon dark gods.[2] Muir points similarities to The Possession of Joel Delaney (1972), as both films fear ethnicity. For example, in The Believers, a cleaning woman working for the Jamisons tries to protect Chris by using a benevolent version of Santeria. Cal fails to distinguish between good and evil magic and treats her as a threat.[2] The film depicts Manhattan as a place where alien cultures merge and the Christian white man has reasons to fear the pagans, who may come for his children. As such, it plays on a fear for the ethic, racial, and religious Other.[2]

Roger Ebert complained that most films about Caribbean religions tend to involve "guys with blank eyes" and animal sacrifice, bloodthirsty cults, sadistic killers, and a quest for innocent blood; they never depict any positive aspect to these religions. He found this to be a prejudiced treatment.[3] He also complained that the film makes use of multiple ritualistic details (such as circles of ashes, blood, and charms), without ever bothering to explain their meaning.[3] According to Mercedes Cros Sandoval, the film brought both public attention and negative publicity for Santería.[5]

The film is more typical of its decade in the negative depiction of the upper class of New York City. The cultists turn out to be members of this social class which literally sacrifice their children in exchange for "fame, wealth, and power". Their success and upward mobility is based not on business acumen, but their practice of Santeria. Muir sees this as a literal interpretation of a familiar phrase, voodoo economics.[2] Muir notes a few similarities with Rosemary's Baby (1968). An evil cult is depicted as active in a modern city, hiding in plain sight. And a couple of limousine liberal friends of the Jamisons are revealed to be cultists in their own right.[2]

For Muir, the highlight of the film involves the depiction of a voodoo-like curse. Jessica Halliday (Helen Shaver) accidentally leaves her compact in a bathroom while snooping around in Calder's office. By the time she retrieves it, it has become a cursed item. While using it, something "gets under her beautiful skin". It manifests as a boil, which gets progressively redder and more inflamed. Finally it swells to capacity, and spiders start emerging from the boil's interior.[2]



The Believers was shown to have influenced the Santería-based cult established by Adolfo Constanzo and supported by Sara Aldrete in Matamoros, Mexico.[6]

Critical response[edit]

On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, The Believers holds an approval rating of 31%, based on 16 reviews, and an average rating of 4.6/10.[7]

Roger Ebert gave the film one and a half stars out of 4, denouncing the film as "an awesomely silly, tasteless, and half-witted movie."[8] Dennis Schwartz' from Ozus' World Movie Reviews awarded the film a grade C+, calling the film "muddled", and criticized the film's cheap scares, writing, and lack of a believable storyline.[9]

However, not all reviews of the film were negative. Hal Hinson from The Washington Post gave the film a mostly positive review, writing, "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."[10] Author and film critic Leonard Maltin awarded the film 2.5 out of 5 stars, calling it "Gripping", and "genuinely frightening".[11] Brett Gallman from Oh, the Horror praised the film, writing, "While The Believers feels familiar on a surface level, its use of Santeria mythology and Schlesinger's deft blend of suspense and graphic shocks provide enough flavor to separate it from the flock."[12]



  • Donovan, Barna William (10 January 2014). Conspiracy Films: A Tour of Dark Places in the American Conscious. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-8615-1.
  • Garcia, Guy (1989), The Believers: Cult Murders in Mexico, Rolling Stone Press
  • Ebert, Roger (5 February 2013). I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie. Andrews McMeel Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7407-9248-9.
  • Maltin, Leonard; Carson, Darwyn (2012). Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide 2013. Signet. ISBN 978-0-451-23774-3.
  • Muir, John Kenneth (28 July 2010). Horror Films of the 1980s. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-5501-0.
  • Olupona, Jacob Kẹhinde; Rey, Terry (2008). Òrìşà Devotion as World Religion: The Globalization of Yorùbá Religious Culture. Univ of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 978-0-299-22464-6.


  1. ^ "Catalog - The Believers". American Film Institute. Retrieved 1 March 2019.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Muir (2007), p. 558-559
  3. ^ a b c Ebert (2000), p. 36-38
  4. ^ a b c Donovan (2011), p. 129-130
  5. ^ Sandoval (2008), p. 366
  6. ^ Rolling Stone (1989), p. 35-36
  7. ^ "The Believers (1987) - Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Flixter. Retrieved February 28, 2019.
  8. ^ Ebert, Roger. "The Believers Movie Review & Film Summary (1987)". Roger Roger Ebert. Retrieved 28 February 2019.
  9. ^ Schwartz, Dennis. "believers". Dennis Schwartz. Retrieved 1 March 2019.
  10. ^ Hinson, Hal. "'The Believers' (R)". Washington Hal Hinson. Retrieved 1 March 2019.
  11. ^ Maltin 2012, pp. 108.
  12. ^ Gallman, Brett. "Horror Reviews - Believers, The (1987)". Oh the Brett Gallman. Retrieved 1 March 2019.

External links[edit]