Voodoo Thrills

The Believers, a campy 1987 thriller directed by John Schlesinger and starring Martin Sheen, is a guilty-pleasure favorite of mine. So when I found The Religion by Nicholas Condé, the novel on which the film is based, I couldn’t resist checking it out.

The book is dated (New York has changed since the early 80’s), and the social distance between the white protagonist Cal Jamison, an anthropologist in the book, and the exotic Latino population did peak my PC meter a few times.

The same is true of the film (Roger Ebert justifiably called out the racist undertones when he reviewed it back in ’87). Appropriating religious beliefs for horror exploitation has gone out of favor, which is probably why we haven’t seen too many voodoo horror films since Angel Heart and The Serpent and the Rainbow (another campy fav).

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Malick Bowens as Palo.

But putting bad taste aside (this is horror after all), I thoroughly enjoyed both film and book, although the stories are very different.

One thing I love about The Believers is that I get to watch the great Malick Bowens, an African artist who trained with Peter Brook.  I wish he had made more films. Here he plays the mysterious Palo, a witch doctor who casts some pretty gruesome spells—the enormous zit spouting spiders won’t be soon forgotten.

Unfortunately, the Palo character is missing from the novel, as is Jimmy Smits’ Lopez, a Latino cop who gets a major mojo put on him in the form of snakes in his guts. It’s a harrowing sequence and Smits’ performance as the paranoid cop hiding out in the barrio is excellent. Robert Loggia is also well cast as the cranky detective; his fate is truly terrifying.

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Jimmy Smits losing his shit.

The Believers is one of John Schlesinger’s last films and his directing chops are in full display here. It’s a shame it’s been lost in the celluloid heap because (although flawed) it still holds up as good neo-noir horror thriller. Mark Cross, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks partner, adapted the script from the novel.

There were a few things I liked better in the book, such as the muumuu wearing Kate character, a kind of Margaret Mead who learns about African Vodun first hand and becomes a true believer when she and her husband offer up their only son to the gods—the greater the sacrifice, the more powerful the magic. She’s not well-developed in the film (except for the muumuus). There is also the inclusion of a creepy animal sacrifice scene in a cemetery where the reader is not sure if Jessica, Cal’s love interest, is in on it or not. The paranoia of who you can or cannot trust rises to a fever pitch as the reader/audience wonders if Cal will fall under the voodoo spell and sacrifice his own son? The plot device of offering seven sons to the Seven African Powers in tandem with world events is a bit contrived.

Even though it was sensationalized and probably insulting to true practitioners, the book seems well-researched. It made me want to know more about Vodun and Santería, and also, not to mess with it.

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