Tag Archives: John Schlesinger

The Believers (1987)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Cult requires child sacrifice.

After the death of his wife (Janet-Laine Green) Cal (Martin Sheen) decides to move with his young son Chris (Harley Cross) from Minneapolis to New York City where he gets a job as a police psychologist. It is there that her councils officer Tom Lopez (Jimmy Smits) who worked undercover to infiltrate a cult that performed child sacrifices and is now paranoid that these same cult members are after him when it’s really Cal’s son that they want.

On the directing end I found this to be mildly engrossing and I enjoyed the way John Schlesinger vividly captured both surburbia as well as the inner city. Working into the false sense of security that the suburbanites have making them believe that they’re ‘immune’ to what goes on in the poorer areas, but here it shows how evil can seep into even the most affluent of areas and revealing just how vulnerable everyone is.

However, if you focus solely on the script, which is based on the Nicholas Conde novel ‘The Religion’, then there are a myriad amount of problems. The biggest one being the opening sequence that features the mother getting electrocuted in a freakish accident, which doesn’t really have all that much to do with the rest of the story. Some may argue that this was the catalyst to get Cal and Chris to move from Minneapolis to New York where the real meat of the plot begins, but why not just have them already in New York to begin with?

Having Helen Shaver enter in as Cal’s love interest is equally pointless. Their relationship happens too quickly and comes off as forced while Chris’ dismay at having a new mother figure in his life seems like an issue for an entirely different type of movie. I admit having a tumor grow on her face that eventually spawns spiders is my favorite part of the movie, but why not just have this occur to the mother instead of killing her off so quickly at the beginning?

Richard Masur’ character, who appears during the first act only to then disappear until the end is problematic as well. A good script has important characters appear throughout the story and not just vanishing until you’ve completely forgotten about them, which I did, and then conveniently reappearing and suddenly becoming an integral part of the plot.

Cal’s character arc is too extreme too. He’s portrayed as being a rationalist who does not believe in superstition, but then later on is shown taking part in a ritual requiring him to squeeze out blood of a decapitated chicken, which is too Jekyll and Hyde-like. Sure people can sometimes change their opinions on things, but not so quickly or so severely. Portraying him as initially being superstitious, instead of so adamantly against it, might’ve made this scene a little less jarring.

There are only an estimated 22,000 people who practice the Santeria religion in the United States, which has a population of 327 million, so the odds that a person such as Cal would come into contact with not only a police officer that dealt with the religion, but also relatives is astronomically low and hurts the plausibility. It’s equally hard to believe that a large group of educated, upwardly mobile yuppies would get caught up into a cult that required child sacrifice and that they would all be able to keep it a secret without any of them getting a guilty conscience and going to the police. This is a religion that’s prevalent in the Spanish-speaking parts of the Caribbean, so why a large group of white people would suddenly get so into it is never explained.

Spoiler Alert!

The twist at the end in which Helen Shaver’s character creates a shrine to the spirits composed of dead animals inside her barn makes no sense as there is never any hint earlier that she had a propensity for the ritual, so why all of sudden did she start embracing it? I’m not an animal expert either, but I don’t think a dog would behave so aggressively as he’s shown doing by jumping up and down and barking loudly at the barn door where the shrine of the dead animal is. I would think for him to act that way it would have to be the smell of a live creature and he’d know the difference, but again that’s just speculation.

End of Spoiler Alert!

A lot of these problems could’ve been avoided had the producers went with their original idea of portraying it as a satanic religion feeding off the hysteria of the satanic ritual abuse that was a prevalent headline catching conspiracy theory during the 80’s. Having some outcast teens and desperate poor people immersing themselves in a fringe ritual because they had nowhere else to turn would’ve made a heck of a lot more sense than a bunch of yuppies gleefully standing around and watching the killing of someone else’s child simply because they felt it would give them ‘good luck’ in their quest up the corporate ladder.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: June 10, 1987

Runtime: 1 Hour 54 Minutes

Rated R

Director: John Schlesinger

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

The Day of the Locust (1975)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Desperate people in Hollywood.

During the depression a young artist named Tod Hackett (William Atherton) comes to Hollywood to help design the set for a new movie. While there he meets a wide assortment of people, who seek fame and fortune, but find heartbreak and rejection instead. Tod falls for Faye (Karen Black) a woman striving to become the next big Hollywood starlet despite lacking any talent while her father Harry (Burgess Meredith) is on the opposite end of the spectrum. At one time he was a vaudeville comedian, but now with his failing health is relegated to selling health tonics door-to-door.

This film is the last great effort of director John Schlesinger whose films after this lacked the same visual style that made Midnight Cowboy and Far From the Madding Crowd cinematic masterpieces. From a visual standpoint it hits all the right chords and is filled with many memorable segments. The best ones include the scene where a group of bourgeoisie guests who come to Natalie Schafer’s home (she was best known for playing Mrs. Howell on ‘Gilligan’s Island’) to watch porn movies There’s also the scene where an entire film set comes crashing down and injuring the entire crew as well as the climactic moment where a large crowd waiting outside to see the premiere of The Buccaneer turn into a violent, bloodthirsty mob.

The acting is first-rate particularly Black who portrays her desperate character to a perfect tee. Meredith, who was nominated for a supporting Oscar, gives a vivid portrayal of her equally desperate father making his scenes quite entertaining. Donald Sutherland is also solid as a likable, but socially awkward outsider, which best suits his acting persona.

The script though by Waldo Salt, which is based on the 1939 novel of the same name by Nathanael West, misses out on a lot of the book’s subtext. In the movie Tod tries to rape Faye while at a party, but this eruption of his seems to come out of nowhere while in the book it gets better explained by showing how Tod continually harbors rape fantasies for Faye and makes these fantasies a running part of the story.

Donald Sutherland’s character, the aptly named Homer Simpson, which supposedly was the inspiration for Matt Groenig’s character in his famous comic strip, is a confusing enigma. In the book he is given a better backstory and revealed to be a man struggling with a lot of inner turmoil while here he’s seems more like a strange, naïve mope from another planet.

There’s also no explanation in the movie for why the word Locust is in the title, which is in reference to the Bible and the plague of locusts that descended onto the fields of Egypt. Tod symbolizes the locust in the novel’s version of the story while in the movie his character is more of an outsider observing the ugliness, but not having a hand at creating it

The biggest issue though is the film’s underperformance at the box office, which helped relegate both Black and Atherton, who at the time were considered up-and-coming stars, to supporting roles afterwards. I believe part of the reason for this is because none of the characters are likable. It’s fine showing humanity’s bad side as long as the audience doesn’t feel beaten-over-the-head with it, but the film wallows so much in the darkness that it overwhelms the viewer. Having a character that was slightly removed from the madness and not as flawed might’ve helped to balance things and make everything else that goes on more tolerable.

Overall though it’s a great film, but the statement it’s trying to make remains murky. Better efforts should’ve been made to tie it to the disillusionment of the American Dream, which is what the book does and not seemed so much like just a glimpse into a freak show of a bygone era like it ends up doing here.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: May 7, 1975

Runtime: 2Hours 24Minutes

Rated R

Director: John Schlesinger

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube