Picks and Pans Review: The Believers

updated 06/22/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/22/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The shame of the summer movie season to date is this god-awful garbage, the misbegotten result of a collaboration between a good cast (Martin Sheen, Helen Shaver, Jimmy Smits), a great director (John Schlesinger) and a great cinematographer (Robby Muller). Occult film fans who relished the spray of chicken blood earlier this year in Angel Heart will no doubt delight in the even more graphic gore included here. Schlesinger offers an electrocution before the credits as a warm-up, then moves on to bleeding chickens, exploding bodies and the sickening mutilation of young boys. Schlesinger, the distinguished director of Midnight Cowboy, Darling and Far From the Madding Crowd, doesn't even have the honesty to admit he's out to make a buck in the exploitation market after a series of box office flops (Honky Tonk Freeway, Yanks, The Falcon and the Snowman). In interviews he pompously maintains that he's interested in the corruption of the Santeria religion, a faith whose origins date back to the African slave trade. Sure, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was really a cautionary docudrama about the misuse of power tools. The story here focuses on Sheen, a recently widowed police psychologist who moves to Manhattan with his young son, played by Harley Cross. Shocked by a series of grisly ritual murders, Sheen finds his family, his sexy landlady (Shaver), his friends (Elizabeth Wilson, Lee Richardson), a no-bull cop (Robert Loggia) and a shifty-eyed millionaire (Harris Yulin) embroiled in Santerian rites. Since an estimated 3 million Americans practice Santeria today, and since its believers insist that they summon supernatural forces for benevolent reasons, a fascinating film might have been made. Schlesinger, however, is concerned with an aberration of Santeria that he and screenwriter Mark Frost, of television's Hill Street Blues, have conjured up from a compendium of horror flick clich├ęs. One of the film's saddest sights is Malick Bowens, the actor who brought such dignity and compassion to his role as Meryl Streep's servant in Out of Africa, prancing about maniacally like something out of Abbott & Costello Meet the Voodoo Vampire. For all its claims to authenticity, The Believers plays like what it is: claptrap. (R)

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