The Tomb of Terror – The Believers (1987)

Every Saturday night The Tomb of Terror opens, unleashing reviews of the obscure and the classic in horror cinema.

How does one get involved in a cult? If you’re part of an evil secret society, do you actively pursue new members? Do you have to kill everyone who says “No, we’re just friends at work and I’d like to keep it that way”? Questions like these go through my head whenever I watch a horror film about cults. There are definitely good films about cults, but I’d have to say I’m not the biggest fan of films pertaining to Satanists, Voodoo, etc. I know that these things are on screen because they exist in the real world. I just have a hard time buying how they are portrayed by filmmakers. After watching a film about cults (which is very different from a cult film, mind you) I think about how the cult is able to do so much, have so many members, and all the other things armchair critics do. For this week’s Tomb I watched the Santeria-infused film The Believers. Like with so many other films about cults, I found myself not hating what I saw, but not BELIEVING a lot of it. See what I did there? Sorry, onto the review.

If there’s one reason to recommend a viewing of The Believers, it’s the opening scene. Cal Jamison (Martin Sheen, Apocalypse Now) is out for a morning jog. His wife Lisa (Janet-Laine Green, voice of Wish Bear on The Care Bears!) is at home making breakfast for their son Chris (Harley Cross, Cohen and Tate). Cal arrives home and promptly spills milk all over the kitchen floor. Lisa tells him to go clean off and she’ll take care of the mess. As all of this is happening, the coffee maker on the counter starts to spark and go on the fritz. Chris yells for his mother to look at the coffee machine. She turns around, stepping her bare feet right into the spilt milk. Absentmindedly, she grabs the coffee machine. In the other room, Cal hears Chris screaming. He runs into the kitchen and screams in horror as he sees his wife being electrocuted to death. This is a shocking scene because it’s so unexpected. Usually the opening scare of a horror film has something to do with the subject at hand (such as a werewolf attack opening a werewolf film). With this scene director John Schlesinger (Oscar winner for Midnight Cowboy) gets his opening shock scene, but does it in a way that allows the coming cult horror and evil rituals time to develop within the story. This scene also effectively reminds a desensitized horror audience that death is a very tragic thing. Cal and Chris will spend the rest of the film in the shadow of the happy family they once had.

After the effective opening, we see what appears to be a Voodoo ritual played under the opening credits. I guess Schlesinger felt that something of the plot had to be tipped near the beginning of the film. It does clue you in to what you’re about to watch, but the scene feels out of place and isn’t referenced again until the end of the film. Following this, we jump ahead a couple of months. Cal and Chris have moved away from the suburban life of Minneapolis and are arriving at their new home in New York City. The father and son have come to the city because of Cal’s job as a police therapist. Cal hopes that starting over in a new locale will make the loss easier for himself and Chris to bear. And as luck would have it his new landlord Jessica (Helen Shaver, 1979’s Amityville Horror) is a recently divorced hottie. I wonder what that means for our widower? Only in the movies are people immediately given back what they’ve recently lost.

At first, life in the city seems to be going great. Cal regularly visits with his best friend Marty (Richard Masur, 1982’s The Thing), and he and Chris get to play in the park all day. On one of these excursions, Chris finds a cut-up cat in the park. It appears to be some sort of sacrifice and is surrounded by candles and talismans. Being a kid, Chris steals one such strange object and keeps it hidden from his father. This will lead them both down a dark road into the world of Santeria, a religion that looks to me like Voodoo for the Hispanic community. Soon after Chris taking the talisman, a mysterious African man named Palo (Malick Bowens, Out of Africa) arrives at the airport. He carries a big stick and bags full of strange artifacts. When a security guard asks to look in the bags, Palo hypnotizes him with his yellow eyes and is allowed to enter into the city.

Cal’s involvement in Santeria becomes deeper once he becomes involved in a murder case. Police Officer Tom Lopez (Jimmy Smits, TV’s NYPD Blue) has been found at the scene of a child’s murder. He’s been acting terrified ever since and has to be contained in a psychiatric hospital. The murder appeared to be part of a sacrificial ritual. When Cal asks Tom about this, he’s given the first clue that will lead into a large conspiracy of people using Santeria for wealth and power.


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John is the co-host of The Macguffin Podcast, lover of 80s teen and horror films, and an independent filmmaker.

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