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The Believers

(1987) ** 1/2 R
114 min. Orion. Directors: John Schlesinger, Patrick Crowley, Michael Childers. Cast: Martin Sheen, Helen Shaver, Harley Cross, Robert Loggia, Richard Masur.

The merit of The Believers can be found in the tension between Hollywood convention and a more subversive form. Hollywood wins, unfortunately, but among '80s thrillers, you can do a lot worse.

The Believers benefits from an array of film talent including John Schlesinger at the helm and Martin Sheen in the lead. The film opens with what could be taken as a sly wink at Schlesinger's previous thriller Marathon Man, as Sheen jogs through an eerie suburbia. When he arrives home, a scene of domestic bliss veers sharply into horror, propelling us into the film. Sheen, it turns out, is psychiatrist Cal Jamison, who specializes in treating police officers, but must pick up the pieces himself after his family trauma. With special concern for his son and his patients, Cal only slowly comes to terms with his own issues.

The thriller underlies this domestic drama, increasingly forcing its way to the surface. In his capacity as a psychiatrist, Cal discovers that a series of voodoo-themed murders has terrified New York cop Tom Lopez (a believably wired Jimmy Smits) into apparently full-fledged insanity. As the story slowly develops, Santeria begins to pop up everywhere, and the murders intersect with Cal's personal life, creating palpable danger for those closest to him.

There's a lot to like here, from Schlesinger's understated approach to the scares to the photography of Robby Müller, best known for shooting some of the most famous indies of the last two decades (from Repo Man to Dancer in the Dark). Screenwriter Mark Frost (co-creator of Twin Peaks) offers some offbeat touches, with Cal's lawyer and best friend Marty (Richard Masur) a wise-cracking amateur magician.

Though Frost worked from the novel The Occult by Richard Conde, the influence of Rosemary's Baby is pervasive, which works in the favor of the film by encouraging some ambiguity and sophistication. Unfortunately, conventional demands arise, such as the necessarily rushed and pat romantic subplot with Sheen and Helen Shaver (providing script-friendly, damsel-in-distress fodder). Finally, the film degenerates into a typical action climax, and Schlesinger seems at a loss to turn it artful. Prior to this typical occult ceremony and kill fest, Schlesinger and his top-notch cast offer up enough truly harrowing creeps and shocks for a mild recommendation.

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