Best Horror Movie You Never Saw: The Believers (1987)

Last Updated on August 5, 2021

Welcome to Arrow in the Head's The Best Horror Movie You Never Saw, which will be dedicated to highlighting horror films that, for one reason or another, don't get as much love as we think they should. We know plenty of you horror hounds out there will have seen many of the movies we pick, but there will be plenty of you who have not. This column is for all of you!

This week we take a look at John Schlesinger's creepy urban voodoo thriller THE BELIEVERS (WATCH IT HEREOWN IT HERE)!

THE STORY: A recently-widowed psychiatrist moves to New York and discovers some of the city's elite are a part of a cult that does whatever it takes to remain in power.

THE HISTORY; Based on the novel "The Religion" by "Nicholas Conde" (actually a pseudonym used by writers Robert Rosenblum and Robert Nathan), THE BELIEVERS was written by Mark Frost, who had up until that point was mostly known for his work on Hill Street Blues. (Later on he'd gain much more fame thanks to his work on Twin Peaks – which he co-created – and Tim Story's FANTASTIC FOUR movies.) According to director John Schlesinger, he and Frost worked on adapting the novel for a year and continued working on it even as they shot. Schlesinger didn't feel that the book was tense enough, which he and Frost sought to correct.

WHY IT'S GREAT: It's not the easiest thing in the world to make a horror movie set in New York City; at least, not one that works. ROSEMARY'S BABY remains the gold standard of course, and there are a few others that have admirably attempted to make supernatural doings in The City That Never Sleeps effective and believable. (Some might argue in favor of THE SENTINEL or WOLFEN, although neither has ever been a winner for me.) THE BELIEVERS comes pretty close, though, arguing that among the many rich and powerful citizens of the city are actually members of a Cuban cult that centers on a man who makes sure all of them stay in power. For a price. The price is a steep one, and if you don't want to know it, look away now: The people in this cult have to sacrifice their own children in order to command the man's favor. Why this is is never really explained, but no matter. The movie is frequently quite creepy and professionally done and a damn good example of how you can make a movie set in the busiest city in the world still feel intimate and eerie.

Voodoo, in the horror movie world, is one of those subjects that can either be unnerving or laughable. If improperly handled, a tale can come off as insensitive or downright insulting to the religion; so many horror movies just use it as fodder for hallucinatory scares and predictable visuals. THE BELIEVERS, frankly, skirts that line. It's never really explores the particulars of the thing outside of giving us familiar peeks at chopped up animals, grim candles, freaky totems and the like. But, in the context of the film, this is alright. THE BELIEVERS, directed by MIDNIGHT COWBOY Oscar-winner John Schlesinger, has atmosphere to spare and boasts a very creepy villain: Malick Bowens as Palo, a bright-eyed brujo whose main goal is, evidently, to help some of Manhattan's high society types gain even more power by sacrificing their children. It's as fucked up as it sounds, and even though it never really makes a ton of sense, the film's own nightmare logic makes this character rather formidable and absolutely scary.

At the center of the film is the complicated relationship between father Cal (Martin Sheen) and son Chris (Harley Cross). Cal and Chris lose the matriarch of the family in the film's prologue, and so they're forced to navigate the waters of New York City on their own a few months later. It's not an easy cohabitation, especially when Cal finds himself involved with his landlord (Helen Shaver) and the movie does a good job of making the father-son dynamic fairly uncomfortable once in a while. (A scene where Cal spanks Chris in the middle of a street is especially cringe-worthy.) Sheen is really good in the film, making Cal a sympathetic hero who's forced to witness many a terrible thing. Robert Loggia, ever the exasperated pro, is perfect as a cop who learns too late just what's going on in the city he patrols, while Jimmy Smits has a really great (small) role as a freaked-out cop who figures out what's happening before anyone else, with dire results.

The Believers was dealing with an improbable, not totally believable story, you know, the idea that people can be sold, taken in by that particular aspect of religion that they do actually something bad to themselves as a result of it. The film had some things that I liked very much, I like thrillers that are about things that I’m frightened of. It’s a way of getting back at me; I’m quite frightened of the idea of spiders pushed into the body, or that somebody can put a spell on you. I suppose some things are possible and I was attracted to the movie because of that." – John Schlesinger,

THE BELIEVERS doesn't often make much sense – there are so many "why is this actually happening?" moments – and yet it has so many legitimately disturbing sequences that it's a horror must for people who haven't seen it. Far from perfect, the film proves the point that sometimes style over substance can work, and Schlesinger's taut direction ensures that you won't walk away from THE BELIEVERS at least a little scathed.

BEST SCENE: There's a scene where a giant pimple turns out to contain something way much worse than pus. Oh dear, it's a helluva gross thing.

WHERE TO WATCH IT: THE BELIEVERS is available on Amazon Prime, Vudu and on Blu-ray.

PARTING SHOT: This flick may not always, you know, "make sense," but you don't mind that so much when it's crawling under your skin.

Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

Eric Walkuski is a longtime writer, critic, and reporter for He's been a contributor for over 15 years, having written dozens of reviews and hundreds of news articles for the site. In addition, he's conducted almost 100 interviews as JoBlo's New York correspondent.