“A police psychologist and his school-age son become embroiled in the machinations of a mysterious cult religion in this thriller from director John Schlesinger. After his wife is electrocuted in a freak accident, Dr. Cal Jamison (Martin Sheen) and his son, Chris (Harley Cross), move back to Manhattan, where Cal went to school. When not spending time with his son and surrogate extended family — husband-and-wife anthropologists Kate (Elizabeth Wilson) and Dennis Maslow (Lee Richardson) — Cal settles into his new job and romances his landlady, Jessica Halliday (Helen Shaver). Soon, though, a series of brutal murders of young children begins to take over Cal’s life. Through the ravings of policeman Tom Lopez (Jimmy Smits), who believes the killers have supernatural power over him after stealing his badge, Cal learns of Santeria, a voodoo-like Latin American sect that mixes elements of Christianity and pagan mysticism. Although the religion turns out to have ties to some of the richest men in the city and even Cal’s well-meaning maid seems to be a practitioner, he can’t get any straight answers as to whether the cult is responsible for the murders. But after a sinister African shaman (Malick Bowens) places a curse on Jessica, Cal finally begins to understand the danger that faces him — and his son. The Believers was very loosely adapted from Nicholas Conde’s 1982 novel The Religion.” – rovi’s AllMovie Guide
“God can’t save you, the Church can’t save you… you think science can stop them?” – doomed detective Tom Lopez
“Do not fear: I am with you; do not be anxious: I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” – Isaiah 41:10
Alright, I know Halloween’s over, but why not squeeze in one last movie for our Holy Horrors For Halloween film festival anyway? A few titles come to mind, but how about we go with The Believers. Now John Schlesinger is a director better known for such non-genre classics as Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man, and (snort) Honky Tonk Freeway (hey, it’s got its fans), so it should really come as no surprise that The Believers, his only real foray into horror, concentrates more on drama and action than it does on scares. A good chunk of the movie is taken up with Martin Sheen’s efforts to deal with the emotional turmoil his young son is going through after the loss of his mother while simultaneously trying to perform his job as a psychiatric adviser to the police as they investigate a string of ritualistic murders. So in many ways, it’s kind of Kramer vs Kramer vs Evil Witch Doctor.
Which is not to say that the movie doesn’t have its share of moments that get under your skin, because it does. Quite literally, in fact, in the case of the spider egg sac buried in someone’s cheek scene (Bleughhhh!!!). But despite the occasional lapses into standard gross out fair, Schlesinger definitely seems to prefer keeping his horror a bit more grounded in realism. Take, for instance, the accidental death by coffee maker (no, really) of Sheen’s wife that opens the movie. It’s completely mundane, with no apparent connection to any of the supernatural shenanigans that follow, and on the surface does little to advance the story except to tell you that Sheen’s wife is dead. Despite that, however, the bizarre randomness of her death makes it somehow more real, and it casts a shadow over the rest of the movie, one in which death is always right there waiting to claim anybody and everybody no matter where they are.
But be all that as it may, The Believers is still a 1980s horror movie, so there can be only so many attempts at subtlety before excess kicks in. And nowhere is that more apparent than in the movie’s treatment of Santeria, the polytheistic belief system that arose during colonial times from an odd amalgam of the Yoruba religion of West Africa, a bit of Native American spirituality, and a healthy dose of some of the visual elements of Catholicism. You see, while the movie does have a quick blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene that explicitly states that the people sacrificing children are not true practitioners of Santeria, but rather a bunch of sociopaths dabbling in Brujería (the Spanish word for witchcraft), the movie still leaves viewers with the vague impression that the followers of Santeria are a bunch of creepy whack job child murderers.
And that’s unfortunate because, while Santeria does require the occasional sacrifice of animals (a practice protected by the Supreme Court by the way), there’s only ever been one recorded instance of human sacrifice involving the religion. This occurred in 1989 in Matamoros, Mexico, where a series of ritualistic murders was carried out by a gang of drug runners seeking supernatural protection for their activities. Once the people involved had been captured, investigators discovered that the leader of the gang had decided to create his own personal offshoot of Santeria inspired by a Hollywood made movie that he required each of his men to watch 14 times. That movie was, you guessed it, The Believers. And folks wonder why religious people get upset over their portrayals in movies.
Look, there are plenty of arguments against practices like Santeria without having to resort to dishonest representations to make them. To begin with, the Catechism expressly states that “all practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one’s service and have a supernatural power over others – even if this were for the sake of restoring their health – are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion”. Now to understand why it says this, you have to take notice that the Catechism places the practicing of magic under the same general heading of “You Shall Have No Other Gods Before Me” as it does all other forms of idolatry. Idolatry, as the 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia explains it, “etymologically denotes Divine worship given to an image, but its signification has been extended to all Divine worship given to anyone or anything but the true God.” So basically, anything we put before God, even basic human desires like security or financial well being, can become an idol.
So if you look at magic through the lens of idolatry, it’s easy to see that the casting of blessings and curses, divination, brewing potions, magical healings, all that “fire burn and cauldron bubble” kind of stuff, really stems from a desire for control over the events and people in our lives. In our consumer-oriented, appearance-obsessed, goal-driven world, it’s pretty easy to feel ignored and powerless. So if magic offers the chance for a little power over the present or a little heads up on what the future has in store, hey, why not go for it? I mean, why live by faith when you can supposedly gain luck, health, money, and (gasp) even love for the price of a few candles or the life of a chicken. Of course, practitioners of these arts often deny they engage in such activities in order to impose their will on events. They’ll claim something along the lines that they are simply releasing the divine energy inside themselves to interact in a harmonious way with the divine already present in nature or some such stuff. It’s not a bad spin, but it just doesn’t stand up to reason. You don’t brew up a love potion to induce harmony, you do it to try and force someone to love you, end of story.
When you get to the core of it, magic is just another form of idolatrous self-worship, and that’s the oldest sin in the book, isn’t it? In contrast, when Christians pray for something (healing, guidance, maybe even love, it happens) we’re not trying to manipulate some supernatural force into giving us what we want (not if we’re praying correctly, anyway). We’re asking for God’s will to be done. And if what we desire happens to coincide with God’s will, that’s great, but if doesn’t, well, then we hope and pray that God teaches us why it doesn’t and changes us so that we want what He wants. We leave the outcome to God. It’s much healthier for our souls that way. And it doesn’t require gutting any chickens or goats, which is always a plus in my book.