The dissonance of marital strife is an intriguing subject for horror films. Looking at someone you thought you knew as well as you know yourself and finding a total stranger in their place is a terrifying experience. Written and directed by Shan Serafin, THE BELIEVER explores the tension in a marriage deteriorating due to possibly demonic influences. The film relies too much on cheap jump scares and aims for philosophical and intellectual heights that it can’t reach. However, it also sets an impressively creepy tone with its stylized dialogue that reflects the horrors of a toxic relationship collapsing in on itself.
The film opens on Lucas (Aidan Bristow) and Violet (Sophie Kargman) bickering over dinner, discussing nebulous differences in ideology and an as-yet-unnamed incident that occurred a month ago. The tension is as thick as the dialogue is opaque: both actors deliver their lines quickly and with an eerily calm deadpan. It unsettles the viewer right away, letting them know that this doomed romance is not the only danger in the world of THE BELIEVER.
Lucas seeks help from Dr. Benedict (Billy Zane), insisting that hypnosis is the only way to help him figure out what’s really going on in his life. He thinks that he and Violet are physical threats to one another, especially since they both believe that the other one is possessed by a demon. Dr. Benedict engages in some confident quackery, using questionable methods to try to get to the root of Lucas’s issues. He fails, however, and Lucas and Violet spiral into increasingly violent and erratic behavior as both Lucas and the viewer question the reality of what they’re seeing.
Zane excels at this kind of magnetically smug character, and the viewer can’t help but miss him when he’s not on screen. Still, the other actors ably convey the bizarre menace and unreality of Lucas and Violet’s tense, potentially demonic relationship. Sophie Kargman is particularly strong in her delivery of the brittle, barbed dialogue. She is disturbingly placid, like a coiled cobra that terrifies with its refusal to strike. Their unsettling dynamic begins to wear on the viewer after a while, though, and THE BELIEVER wisely adds a new wrinkle to the narrative once Violet’s parents show up.
Gus (Lindsay Ginter) and Charlotte (Susan Wilder) seem friendly enough at first, but as their visit continues, they can’t seem to hide the malevolence hiding behind their smiling faces. In one moment Gus ominously warns Lucas that Violet is “older than you think”; in another, he breathlessly refers to his own daughter as “irresistible.” Charlotte probes Lucas for information and shows him a disturbing photograph of Violet that further convinces him that something is very wrong with his wife.
The viewer quickly learns that the unnamed incident from the opening scene is Violet’s decision to have an abortion. Lucas refers to her abortion as a “selfish choice” and “the unthinkable,” constantly berating her for daring to terminate a pregnancy without his permission. When he asks her how she managed to get an abortion, he says that she couldn’t have possibly done it outside the house because she has no car and no friends. He is stating quite plainly that his wife has no means of escaping their home as he interrogates her about a private medical decision. Every word of dialogue in THE BELIEVER is loaded with menace and hidden danger, but this admission of Violet’s entrapment is the most shocking exchange by far.
Horror doesn’t necessarily require a sympathetic character to be effective. Viewers can care about a character’s fate without liking them. A person still retains their intrinsic humanity regardless of how annoying or off-putting they may be. With that said, THE BELIEVER makes it very hard to care about what happens to Lucas. The film plays his very humanity coy, making the viewer question whether he’s a demon in human form or just an awful, awful man. Either way, it’s tempting to shrug your shoulders at the sinister forces surrounding Lucas and say, “He’s all yours.”
THE BELIEVER hides malice and uncertainty in every word, taking the shorthand that all couples develop and turning it into a weapon that disorients and disturbs. The unsettling performances do their best to sell this tale of lovers and demons, but the audience is left wondering why they should worry about the soul of a man who never had one to begin with.
THE BELIEVER is now available on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube Movies, Cable, and Satellite On Demand.