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Film / The Believers

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The Believers is a 1987 horror film directed by John Schlesinger, starring Martin Sheen, Helen Shaver, Robert Loggia, Richard Masur, Harris Yulin, and Jimmy Smits. It is based on the novel The Religion by Nicholas Conde.

Cal Jamison (Sheen) is a police psychologist and a recently widowed single father after his wife dies in a freak household accident. After moving to New York City he gets advice from friend and lawyer Mary (Masur), before joining the NYPD as a psychiatrist. At the behest of Lt. McTaggart (Loggia), Cal treats Det. Tom Lopez (Smits), who has infiltrated a secret cult practicing ritualistic child murder and is now being pursued by the cultists, who killed the son of prominent NYC businessman Caulder (Yulin). As Jamison and McTaggart get more involved with the case, and while Cal is falling for his neighbor Jessica (Shaver), Cal worries that his own son may be targeted next.

This film provides examples of:

  • All for Nothing: After Lopez' autopsy reveals he had live snakes in his guts, McTaggart elects to drop the investigation into the ritual killings and pin the murders on Lopez, rightly beginning to fear for his own life. Unfortunately for him, by that time, he's already had a curse put on him that eventually leaves him paralyzed in a chair in his apartment. Even though Cal promises to find a way to help him, McTaggart decides to cut his losses, and he kills himself.
  • Agent Mulder: Cal takes to the voodoo cult theory pretty quickly, but there's a lot of evidence to support it.
  • Agent Scully: McTaggart starts off this way, but the more the evidence stacks up, he shifts into an Agent Mulder himself. When they autopsy Lopez and find live snakes in his guts, he understandably shits himself and attempts to close the investigation, though it's because he's fearful for his own life, not because he doesn't believe voodoo is involved.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Also partially Driven to Suicide. After he feels live snakes voodooed into his guts, Lopez stabs himself to death trying to kill them before they do God knows what to his internal organs.
  • Big Bad: Robert Caulder, who sacrificed his own son for prosperity, and leads the cultists.
  • Big Bad Friend: Cal's in-laws turn out to be part of an evil cult that sacrifices children and want him to join them by offering up his own son.
    • Subverted with Marty. Considering Marty disappears for much of the film after his introduction in his office, and some subtle nuances in Richard Mazur's performance, it seems that he's going to turn out bad like everyone else. He doesn't.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Marty. While Cal's playing possum during the sacrificial ritual with Chris, he's surrounded by cultists who attempt to subdue him after he stabs Dennis Maslow to death with the ritual knife. It's Marty, who opens fire on the cultists from the upper level that gives Cal the window he needs to save his son. He even gets the chance to blind Palo with a magic trick involving fire.
    • Cal also saves Jessica, and goes toe-to-toe with Caulder after Caulder runs off with Cal's son, Chris, attempting to finish the sacrificial ritual.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Cal's father-in-law, Dennis Maslow. He lets his wife be killed when she has second thoughts about sacrificing Chris, and is fully on-board with drugged Cal sacrificing his son. Cal has no idea Maslow is even involved until he finds Maslow has led him into a trap and Caulder and Palo show up.
  • Break the Cutie: After a boil voodooed onto her face hatches live spiders and nearly kills the upbeat and perky Jessica, She calmly reveals in the stinger that she's taken up the practice of voodoo herself in order to make sure she, Cal and Chris are protected after Cal finds her hidden altar.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Palo can mimic a person's voice completely. He uses the ability to get the drop on Marty and incapacitate him, and possibly kill him.
  • Cool Old Guy: McTaggart as played by the gravelly-voiced Robert Loggia.
  • Damsel in Distress: After the boil on Jessica Halliday's face breaks open and hatches spiders, Cal, across the street, sees Jessica's horrified reaction and rushes her to the hospital after she collapses, saving her life
  • Dirty Coward: Played with. McTaggart decides to drop the investigation and pin the blame on Lopez, whom he knows is innocent. However, after he reveals that they found live snakes in Lopez' internal organs during his autopsy, his fear becomes REALLY understandable. Also, he's had a curse put on him by that point as well, and ends up killing himself, so his actions become Allfor Nothing anyway.
  • Dissonant Serenity: When Cal finds the voodoo altar Jessica has constructed in the stinger, she's coolly tells him it's for their protection, without a hint of concern over what Cal thinks about it.
  • The Dragon: Palo.
  • Driven to Suicide: Det. Tom Lopez ends up gutting himself after Palo does a voodoo ritual that puts SNAKES IN LOPEZ' GUTS.
    • Lt. Sean McTaggart has Palo perform a voodoo ritual on him that paralyzes him from the waist down. He attempts suicide in Cal's presence, but Cal stops him. After Cal leaves, even though he promises help, McTaggart is so mentally broken at that point that he pulls a second pistol from his ankle holster and succeeds in his suicide attempt.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Dennis Maslow is a seemingly sweet grandfather to Chris. Later, he drugs Cal and is all for Cal sacrificing Chris under the influence so Cal can be a member of Dennis' Cult.
  • Fanservice: Helen Shaver has a getting-out-of-bed-nude scene as Cal's new girlfriend Jessica.
  • Hardboiled Detective: McTaggart until he finds out just how outclassed he is.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Kate Maslow balks at the idea of Chris being sacrificed. She tries to warn Cal, but is killed for her efforts.
  • The Hero: Cal Jamison.
  • High-Voltage Death: Cal's wife is offed by a faulty coffee maker in the very first scene. In front of her son no less.
  • Hollywood Voodoo: The titular villains are members of a voodoo cult; based on a book titled The Religion. Played with in that while they practice an evil form of voodoun that requires Human Sacrifice (specifically of children), most of its members are upper class yuppies and bureaucrats who have sold their humanity for fame and fortune. Only one member of the cult is African.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: The fate of the African cultist (Palo) in the climax.
  • Jumped at the Call: Marty comes to Cal's aid immediately in the final act, despite not knowing exactly what all is going on, and proves absolutely CRUCIAL to Cal's victory over the cult in the climax.
  • The Lancer: McTaggart serves this role in the first two-thirds of the film to Cal. However, after Palo does a voodoo ritual that paralyzes him from the waist down, he's Driven to Suicide, opening up...
    • Marty to become Cal's lancer in the final act. And he does, helping save both Cal and Chris in the climax.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Carmen, Cal's housekeeper, attempts to protect Cal and Chris with cleansing rituals. However, when he comes into Chris' bedroom and witnesses her doing one, he ignores her protests that she's trying to help and throws her out, only making the situation worse.
  • Offing the Offspring: The villains are an evil cult consisting largely of upper-class yuppies who have sacrificed their children in dark rituals in exchange for fame and success. They want to recruit the hero to have him do the same thing to his own son.
  • Police Are Useless: Though not from inaction. Both Lopez and McTaggart do their damndest, but considering that the cult is made up of prominent New York City bureaucrats, and The Dragon can put voodoo hexes on them that put snakes in their guts or paralyze them, they are woefully outmatched, and both are dead before the credits roll.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: In the beginning, McTaggart blows off Cal's voodoo theories as complete bullshit, understandably, as a seasoned veteran cop in New York City. He quickly changes his tune.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Kate changes her mind about sacrificing Chris and tries to warn Cal. Palo kills her before she can do so successfully.
  • Refusal of the Call: McTaggart knows that Lopez isn't the killer, but tells Cal they're going to name Lopez as the killer anyway. After Cal calls him out on it, McTaggart takes Cal to the autopsy room where Lopez' body is. When he takes the cover off a bowl containing Lopez organs, revealing that not only did he have SNAKES in his gut, but that said snakes are STILL ALIVE and slithering in the bowl, the reasoning behind what McTaggart does becomes a lot more understandable. Unfortunately for him, he's already has his own voodoo curse in place, and ends up killing himself later anyway.
  • Sanity Slippage: Tom Lopez. He's well aware of what voodoo can do, and when he stumbles across the first cultist sacrifice in progress and they knock him out and steal his badge, he knows they'll be coming after him and rightly freaks out. He's proven horribly right.
    • McTaggart also crosses into this territory after he has a curse put on him that effectively paralyzes him to a chair in his apartment. He points a gin at Cal, thinking he's involved, and later commits suicide after seeing what became of Lopez.
  • Spiders Are Scary: The Jessica has the egg of a parasitic spider placed on her cheek by the voodoo cultists so tiny baby spiders eventually hatch from her face.
  • The End... Or Is It?: Cal, his son Chris and a pregnant Jessica, are living happily on a farm.... but Jessica's practicing voodoo in the barn complete with animal sacrifice. She DOES say she did it to protect them, and considering in her final scene before this saw her rushed to the hospital by Cal after spiders hatched from a voodooed boil on her face, her actions may be warranted. Especially because, while many of the cultists, including leader Caulder and Dragon Palo were killed, not all of them were, and based on what they did to poor Lopez and McTaggart, they can be vengeful from a distance.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Marty. After witnessing Cal get kidnapped by Caulder, Palo, and Maslow, he follows them to a warehouse where they're going to have a drugged Cal sacrifice his own son. He lays cover fire for Cal after Cal reveals he was playing possum, and aids Cal in trying to find Chris after Caulder runs off with him. He's only stopped by Palo duping him and getting the drop on him.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Marty gets hit with a blowgun dart from Palo was he's trying to find Chris. This would seem to be lethal, but Marty starts losing mobility and collapses and Palo approaches him with a garrotte seemingly intending to finish the job before Marty burns his face and blinds him. We then see Marty collapse, but it's unclear if he died, or just fell unconscious. The fact Palo comes after him with the garrotte seems to indicate that the blow dart wasn't fatal, but after Cal rescues Chris, we never see Marty again, and there's nothing that makes it clear whether he lived or died.