Monday, March 16, 2009

X + Y = The Apocalypse

Doomsday cults present a terrifying possibility for genuine horror, yet there seems to be a shortage of quality entries about the subject when it comes to modern cinema. I suppose self-appointed messiahs don't bring in the Friday night crowd and sometimes, real-life tragedies make fictionalized depictions feel tasteless and exploitive. Generally, films featuring cults (a mighty Google challenge, as one must, in doing research, first sift through some very temptingly distracting cult movies) tend to focus on devout Satan fan clubs, like the co-op board from hell in Rosemary's Baby or the children-hating corporate folks of Halloween III. In the mainstream, Children of the Corn and its bevy of underrated sequels come the closest to fully exploring (and exploiting) the idea of blind faith on a mass scale.

For these reasons and a few more, the description of Daniel Myrick's Believers was fairly promising. A small but creepy collection of educated professionals and their children have been making minor news as they prepare for the mathematically predicted apocalypse. Meanwhile, two all-American paramdedics (one so strapping, his sunnily pregnant wife is giving him a son!) are called to a lonely restop to revive a dying woman as her little daughter watches. Before you can say David Koresh, a truck of white-clad gun toters shows up to haul the do-gooders to an underground bunker, where doomsday plans are in full swing (although for all the fiery rain and simultaneous suicide talk, the ascension seems easier to plan than a baby shower).

Myrick is best-known as half the team behind a little something you may have heard of called The Blair Witch Project. That film, for all its prosperity and influence, never quite pushed its innovative filmmakers into the commercially successful sphere of cinema. Myrick has some decent straight-to-DVD horror credits that help to soften the blows of The Blair Witch 2, but he hasn't come close to backing his juggernaut with further proof of directoral ability. Unfortunately, Believers doesn't help.

In every possible way, this is a mediocre film, confused from the very beginning as to what type of story it wants to tell. The setup has plenty of potential: a mathematic cult that has discovered the formula to the universe is philosphoically promising. It's just not developed. At all. Was the concept too heady and sci-fi? Why not emphasize the human drama by exploring the characters of the cult members to suggest how these people came to put so much faith in a Tobin Bell-voiced Teacher who's good with numbers? Let us feel something as they near their end. Doesn't happen. Another option: make a suspenseful thriller. Problem with that is you need atmosphere, but Myrick seems to lack the creative energy necessary to produce it.

Sigh. All of these ideas are tagged and dimissed in Believers. It's clear that the filmmakers had ambitious intentions in theory, but failed to find any interesting ways to get them across. I'm guessing the film began as an intelligent, numbers-based horror in the vein of Pi, but the approach was deemed unsellable and susequently dumbed it down. Or possibly the reverse: the film maybe was intended to be a simple cult story and someone threw in bogus science for a twist. But as my recent fortune cookie says, "If you chase two rabbits, both will escape." I'm pretty sure that somehow explains this film.

High Points
There is an attempt to show how a seemingly regular joe could come to believe in a cult's teachings, but the execution--a long exposition-soaked monologue that explains the character's religious background--feels clunky and obvious

About 20 minutes from the end, I declared that a sorely needed, if predictable twist ending would be the only way to mildly redeem the 90 minutes that had come before it. That did happen

Turning a restroom into the Reflection Room makes perfect sense

Low Points
A lead heavy soundtrack doesn't mesh with the unmoody lighting choices

Is there a rule that says every cult has to wear white and speak in monotone?

Lessons Learned
Super genius cults that have the intelligence to decode the universe and revive the dead still have the age old villainous problems with peacefully killing the one tied up guy with the ability to foil their plans

Super genius cults haven't evolved past chalkboards

Telling a shifty mechanic you don't trust him when you're all alone is probably not a good idea; turning your back while exploring his weapon-ridden shop is even worse

Winning Line
“I can’t believe believe you don’t know you’ve been fucking brainwashed!”
I can. Because, you know....that's what brainwashing is.

I wish I could recommend a rental, but honestly, the best I can give Believers is a casual viewing on cable. I will say that the DVD includes a director commentary and several deleted scenes, so those as weirdly fascinated by cults as I am may find something redeeming there. Ultimately, this is just an exercise in the cliches of cult culture. Nice touches--such as the bathroom graffiti reading "Mathematics is the language in which the gods speak to each other"--are wasted when all the film has to show for it are bland and faceless zealots with glossy eyes.


  1. Guess I will wait for it to hit cable then. Thanks for the review!

  2. It's just very meh. Not worth seeking out, but not so bad that it requires decontamination.