The film opens to the death scene of Lisa Jamison (Janet-Laine Green). She is electrocuted when she touches a malfunctioning coffeemaker while standing barefoot in a pool of spilled milk. Following the accidental death of his wife by electrocution in Minneapolis, psychologist Cal Jamison (Martin Sheen) moves to New York City with his son Chris (Harley Cross). He finds employment as a police psychologist for the New York City Police Department. One of his patients is officer Tom Lopez, who worked undercover in infiltrating a cult and now lives in fear of the cultists.
The City soon experiences a series of brutal, ritualistic child murders, supposedly committed by members of a Hispanic cult practicing a malevolent version of brujería. The paranoid ramblings of Lopez start seeming relevant to the case. The film soon starts hinting at a conspiracy involving affluent New Yorkers, such as businessman Robert Calder. Things take a turn for the worse when the cult targets Chris Jamison.Martin Sheen as Cal Jamison
Helen Shaver as Jessica Halliday
Harley Cross as Chris Jamison
Robert Loggia as Lieutenant Sean McTaggert
Jimmy Smits as Tom Lopez
Malick Bowens as Palo
Elizabeth Wilson as Kate Maslow
Harris Yulin as Robert Calder
Lee Richardson as Dennis Maslow
Richard Masur as Marty Wertheimer
Carla Pinza as Carmen Ruiz
Janet-Laine Green as Lisa Jamison
Raúl Dávila as Oscar Sezine
Geoffrey Kellett as Paramedic
Barna William Donovan notes that there were several Satanic-themed Hollywood films in the 1970s. Citing as examples The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen film series (1976-1991). But he also noted that Hollywood seemed to have lost interest in the subject by the 1980s. He cites The Believers as one of only two noteworthy films about Devil worship created in the 1980s, the other one being Angel Heart (1987). Though he notes that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) also touched on the similar subject of a demon-worshiping cult, which abducts children and offers human sacrifices.
He points that Angel Heart was a period piece set in the 1940s, and so fantastic that it limited its connections to the contemporary world of the 1980s "and its fundamentalist paranoias", while The Believers was set in that contemporary world. The villains were not, however, worshipers of the Judeo-Christian Satan. Instead they were practitioners of Santería, the legitimate Afro-Caribbean religion depicted in the film as "a cult of evil that condones human sacrifice". Neither film approached the subject of the 1980s hysteria over Satanic ritual abuse, a conspiracy theory which generated sensationalist headlines in this decade. Donovan concludes that Hollywood distanced itself from the subject matter. Probably because child sexual abuse was deemed an unfit subject for popcorn entertainment.
According to John Kenneth Muir, the message of the film is that yuppies would do anything for success, including calling upon dark gods. Muir points similarities to The Possession of Joel Delaney (1972), as both films fear ethnicity. For example, in The Believers, a cleaning woman working for the Jamisons tries to protect Chris by using a benevolent version of Santeria. Cal fails to distinguish between good and evil magic and treats her as a threat. The film depicts Manhattan as a place where alien cultures merge and the Christian white man has reasons to fear the pagans, who may come for his children. As such, it plays on a fear for the ethic, racial, and religious Other.
Roger Ebert complained that most films about Caribbean religions tend to involve "guys with blank eyes" and animal sacrifice, bloodthirsty cults, sadistic killers, and a quest for innocent blood. Never depicting the comfort these religions provide to their believers. He found this to be a prejudiced treatment. He also complained that the film makes use of multiple ritualistic details (such as circles of ashes, blood, and charms), without ever bothering to explain their meaning. According to Mercedes Cros Sandoval, the film brought both public attention and negative publicity for Santería.
The film is more typical of its decade in the negative depiction of the upper class of New York City. The cultists turn out to be members of this social class which literally sacrifice their children in exchange for "fame, wealth, and power". Their success and upward mobility is based not on business acumen, but their practice of Santeria. Muir sees this as a literal interpretation of a familiar phrase, voodoo economics. Muir notes a few similarities with Rosemary's Baby (1968). An evil cult is depicted as active in a modern city, hiding in plain sight. And a couple of limousine liberal friends of the Jamisons are revealed to be cultists in their own right.
For Muir, the highlight of the film involves the depiction of a voodoo-like curse. Jessica Halliday (Helen Shaver) accidentally leaves her compact in a bathroom while snooping around in Calder's office. By the time she retrieves it, it has become a cursed item. While using it, something "gets under her beautiful skin". It manifests as a boil, which gets progressively redder and more inflamed. Finally it swells to capacity, and spiders start emerging from the boil's interior.
According to Draconis Blackthorne, the film explores the psychology of 'true believer' fundamentalists of any religious movement, as well as its "potentially criminal results". He suggests that the film served as an influence to The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988).
The film was shown to have influenced the Santería-based cult established by Adolfo Constanzo and supported by Sara Aldrete in Matamoros, Mexico. The cult's members believed that ritual murders would protect them and preyed on Americans vacationing in and around South Padre Island.
The Believers made a profit, but critics dismissed it as another cult film. It opened to mostly negative reviews: Many thought it the weakest of John Schlesinger's later films and too violent and predictable to be scary. Many felt it a poor attempt at imitating Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist. Roger Ebert denounced the film as "an awesomely silly, tasteless, and half-witted movie."
This film featured early appearances from Jimmy Smits and Helen Shaver. Smits and Sheen both appeared in The West Wing, where Smits' character succeeds Sheen's as President of the United States. He appeared as David Caruso's replacement on the TV Show NYPD Blue. Helen Shaver moved on to other roles on TV and film: she is remembered as Dr. Rachael Corrigan on the TV show Poltergeist: The Legacy.
The film was released theatrically in the United States by Orion Pictures in June 1987. It grossed $18,753,438 at the box office.
The film was released on DVD in the United States by MGM Home Entertainment in 2002.
The film score by J. Peter Robinson was released on Varèse Sarabande Records on lp and cassette in 1987. A expanded score was released on cd in a limited number of 1,000 units from Perseverance Records on September 3, 2009.