The Believers (1987) Blu-ray Review: That Old Black Magic Has Me in Its Spell

Today’s younger generation of photoplay viewers probably only recognizes actor Martin Sheen as the father of Charlie and/or “the guy who starred in that one Vietnam movie with the boat and the napalm”. An even smaller demographic will be able to go a step further on that front and classify him as the brother of cult B movie actor Joe Estevez. (Emilio never gets mentioned, and rightfully so.) In fact, it’s almost hard to believe now that there was once a time that Marty was something of a formidable name on a movie marquee before he started to appear in more independent productions and the occasional flick that was only slightly above that of his brother’s endeavors.

Twenty-five years before he was cast as Cliff Robertson’s replacement in a reboot of the Spider-Man series nobody asked for – a film that, by all rights, should have gone straight to video, wherein his cult star sibling Joe would have surely been given the part – Martin Sheen starred in his very own cult film. Literally, at that. John Schlesinger’s 1987 supernatural thriller The Believers from Orion Pictures finds Sheen as psychologist Cal Jamison who loses his wife in the beginning of the film to an accident that is purely, 100% attributable to man’s unnecessary consumption of milk (a scene that is a prime candidate for the Dump Dairy campaign if I ever saw one). Naturally, this strengthens the bond between the newbie widower and his now mum-less son, Chris (Harley Cross).

Moving to New York to get away from all of the bad memories, Cal and son soon find themselves in an even finer kettle of fish once a black magic cult targets the pair – specifically young Chris, who is the ideal candidate for a bizarre series of sacrificial rituals perplexing the police, led by the always at-home-as-a-cop-or-thug, Mr. Robert Loggia. While working for the cops, Cal dives into his own investigation, foolishly tossing aside the possibility of black magic being real – a decision he soon realizes might have been just a bit premature when snakes appear in people’s bodies and a creepy fellow with a Grace Jones haircut (Malick Bowens) arrives to put in eerie white contacts and show all the white folk at a weird party how to dance to bongo music.

Soon after discharging his superstitious housekeeper (Carla Pinza), Cal starts to believe, eventually seeking the assistance of a Santería practitioner (Raúl Dávila) to protect his child as the many secret followers of the cult close in. (Sheen himself does not practice Santería. Nor does he have a crystal ball, for that matter.) Helen Shaver (already gettin’ her cigarette voice on) sheds every scrap of clothing in one glorious moment as Sheen’s new gal pal, only to have spiders emerge from her kisser in another scene that anyone with a fear of creepy crawlies will have a conniption fit over (and, until Sheen saw her face, he wasn’t a believer [ta-dum]). Richard Masur is Sheen’s comic-relief lawyer who has a fondness of a different kind of magic, and Harris Yulin – an actor who pretty much plays the same guy in every movie – plays pretty much that same character here: that of a bad guy.

TV star Jimmy Smits has an early role (before somebody talked him into ruining any chance of a theatrical career he may have had by signing up for Old Gringo, a decision that would later land him in the embarrassing position of being a recurring character in the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy – oh, the horror) as a cop tormented by the cultists (and probably a sinking preminition that he would later find himself in Swtich). The premiere of the movie caused a few real life Santería practitioners to shout out “Really, that’s not what we’re all about”, mostly because the film incorporated some of the aspects a cult formed by several serial killers in Mexico performed (Hollywood).

Despite being a decent film and making a few bucks at the box office, the movie wound up being forgotten; I remember when the VHS from HBO (who distributed the film for Orion) first appeared on the rental store shelf in the ’80s, which stayed there until the DVD from MGM (who had bought the Orion library after the company went bankrupt) debuted in 2002. Well, here we are 12 years after that, and it’s high time we gave The Believers another chance to convert us (for Martin Sheen’s sake, if nothing else), with a new Blu-ray release from the folks at Twilight Time. Sporting the best HD transfer MGM had of the title, the 1080p widescreen (1.85:1) presentation shows off Robby Müller’s cinematography admirably, and, while the movie has a rather muted (and sometimes soft) tone throughout (supernatural thriller + lower budget title + ’80s film stock + Orion Pictures), the balance and detail is quite fine overall.

A 2.0 DTS-HD MA lossless audio track delivers the film’s dialogue, music, and sound effects without any noticeable hitches whatsoever. A secondary audio option, that of an isolated music score by composer J. Peter Robinson, is also presented in 2.0 DTS-HD MA, and English (SDH) subtitles are available for those who need it. Twilight Time’s release of The Believers– just in time for Halloween, at that – sports another set of lovely liner notes from the equally-lovely Julie Kirgo, and the original spoilerific theatrical trailer (do not watch it first if you haven’t already seen the film!) is the only other extra (apart from a perfunctory MGM 90th Anniversary spot that can be found on every recent Twilight Time/MGM collaboration).

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Luigi Bastardo

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