Why? Well, both of the novels I've written (42 Months Dry and Playing Saint) could be considered “supernatural thrillers,” meaning they are action/suspense stories involving miraculous elements, demons, pagan worship, possession and exorcism, etc. And since most of what the general populace knows about these things comes from Hollywood, I’ve decided that, each and every Tuesday, I will review one of these films, looking at everything from cinematography to theological accuracy. I'll be focusing on the mid to late-’90s and early aughties, when these were experiencing a revival, as well as perhaps taking in a couple of the most recent crop.
So let's begin, shall we?
Bless the ChildYear: 2000
Starring: Kim Basinger, Jimmy Smits, Rufus Sewell, Christina Ricci
Directed by: Chuck Russell (Nightmare on Elmstreet 3, ’80s version of The Blob)
There’s a line in the first chapter of Demoniac, where, upon encountering an apparently occult-inspired crime scene full of tired, uninventive symbols and imagery, a homicide detective disappointedly comments, “That’s a little ’90s horror flick.” And, while Bless the Child technically came out after the ’90s had come to their glorious conclusion with the non-event of Y2K, it’s exactly what Corrine the detective was talking about. I mean, look at the cover of this thing:
If you’re anything like me (i.e. male, grew up in the ’80s), it probably takes a few seconds before you can tear your eyes away from Vickie Vale, but when you do . . . Ahhh!!! inverted burning cross and creepy girl-in-baptismal-gown! (a good two years before the American version of the The Ring came out). Any way you cut it, that's pure schlock right there. Oh, and one-word excerpts of reviews are never a red flag. Not at all.
The return of the “Christmas star” has heralded the next big figure (whatever that means) in Christendom-slash-the world. Druggie mother Jenna abandons said super-infant (Cody) in the care of her sister (Maggie, played by Bassinger) and disappears for several years, during which she (Vikie Vale) cares for the little girl, who outwardly seems to be autistic, but may just be spiritually gifted (because one couldn’t be both?). Things are going fairly well and Cody is, oh let's say six. Enter child TV star-turned New Age guru (i.e. Satanist) and re-enter the girl’s mom, both of whom want immediate custody of Cody. Only, they’ve actually been killing kids who were born on the day the star re-appeared and only want Cody in order to flip her to the dark side. Or, ya know, kill her.
The Film Itself:
On the whole, the production (along with the pacing and dialogue) is about the quality of your average direct-to-Christian-DVD rapture movie sequel, despite being produced by Mel Gibson’s then on-top-of-the-world Icon Pictures. There’s a whole lot of very wooden lines and sloppy exposition, although most of the cast (particularly the little girl who plays Cody) does as well as could be expected with the material.
The visuals are all over the board, from pretty decent (the recurring gargoyle, the hoodied Jenna as Virgin Mary) to horrendous (most of the attempted scary stuff). This is why, as a horror/thriller, it’s largely a failure. A couple of promisingly creepy moments are ruined when the just-out-of-frame/in-the-shadows is brought out into the light with sub-Veggie-Tales special effects. The idea of Bassinger’s character having these flashes behind the spiritual veil moments is intriguing, but the graphics are just awful. Granted, it’s been twelve years since these effects were rendered, but twenty years ago, Jurassic Park pulled off stunning realism by obscuring the monsters with lots of rain, shadows, and low light (all of which tend to help in horror movies anyway). Ah well, it's nice to know that the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz can still land roles as demons in major studio work.
So realism was a problem, but I was able to suspend disbelief, even for some of the more out-there elements. But I couldn’t buy the New York setting—not when Canadian landmarks, labels, and even currency popped up every few minutes. The occasional grainy, mid-’80s establishing stock footage of Manhattan couldn’t make up for that. I consider an inability to hide Canadian location to be a standard B-movie element.
All that said, however, when the action ramps up, it’s actually pretty intense and well-done. The director is clearly most at home with pyrotechnics, blank rounds, blood packs, and squibs, and those moments are the film's best.
Merits and Demerits:
We’re not going to talk plotholes here, because there are too many to count. Instead, let’s just look at the use of plot devices and how the story unfolds (or is violently yanked open) . . .
Within five minutes of the opening credits, Jenna, the uber-drug-addict is handing infant Cody to her sister and basically telling her, "You'll find formula for my baby in this appropriately dingy knapsack. Oh, drat! I forgot that the first thing you'll encounter upon opening said knapsack is my pouch of herione, syringe, spoon, and lighter, all wrapped loosely in a dirty cloth! (Read: I have a drug problem)." It's the kind of rushed exposition you expect to find in cable TV shows that are trying to cram a full movie's worth of story into a 41-minute episode.
Other odd exposition from Bless the Child: If you're in charge of caring for a dozen special needs children, don't stop them from picking up a dead bird and all gathering around it. After all, they're "very curious about death." Don't even make them wash their hands afterward. If Michael Scott has taught us anything, it's that "you can't get sick from a bird."
As far as characters go, they're pretty two-dimensional, but at least consistent. To be honest, I love the whole seminarian-turned-Pesci-cop thing (see also: The Prophecy) for obvious reasons. But the rest of the good guys were about as inept as they come. I mean, the NYPD has to bring in an FBI consultant to notice that the five murdered children were all born on the same day?! And the news media hadn't noticed either? Really? And when the police do put it together, they don't play it up at all or get in contact with the parents of other New York children born on that day? Riiiiight.
But the good guys are the least of the problems. Now, unlike most reviewers of this film I don't hate that the bad guys are clearly bad, wearing black trench coats, looking all menacing, etc. Sometimes bad guys are bad guys. In fact, one might say that, in the twist-ending-happy late ’90s, not having a twist was sort of its own twist. But these bad guys know they’re bad guys, which is a tricky thing to pull off. And it can get cartoony, as it does when a gang of them attacks Maggie in a subway station. You’d swear she was being jumped by the Jets or the Sharks (aside: if you want to worship the devil that’s your own deal, but wearing a leather vest with no shirt?! For shame.)
And poor Rufus Sewell, with his one half-dead eyelid and gravelly voice second only to the Sheriff of Nottingham's cousin in evilitude, is doomed to play villains for the rest of his film career..
When you deal with these topics, you cannot go cheese-free. Some films go for the extra cheese option. Observe:
- The bad guys are planning to ritually kill Cody, but first they have to take her to the dentist? Wow, that's a great opening to re-kidnap her. But . . . the dentist? Yes, I realize they were falsifying new dental records and stuff, but that could be done without bringing her in to the office. And, really, throwing a tense dentist office moment in to a suspense movie never helps.
- Apparently only latinas with accents (i.e., nuns in full habit and housekeepers/nannies) are pro-Jesus. Everyone else is slightly annoyed by Him, especially those who work in the psychiatric field. Classic types now available in stereo!
- I'm pretty sure Cody calls her mother "Ma'am." Just like Webster. Actually, casting Webster as Cody's friend could have punched this thing up a little bit.
- Tears pouring from the eyes of a statuette of Mary is the most played out thing in the history of everthing ever.
I have to give some props right off the bat here: the fact that the girl is from God, not from Satan, is refreshing. The former has been done to death anyway. I also appreciate the positive portrayal of Christianity in general, and the Catholic Church in particular, seeing as how Bless the Child came out during Hollywood's open-season on religious smearage (think Stigmata, End of Days, Dogma, Da Vinci Code, etc.) . . . although the credentials for the mystical old priest (a role phoned in by Sir Ian "Bilbo" Holm) inexplicably include that he was "censured by the Vatican."
I also appreciate that the story does not blur and blend all religious notions of "good" together, teaming psychics and shamans with rogue priests and devout Christians in typical Hollywood fashion. The spiritual battle here is good vs. evil, using broadly Christian categories, which will irk most viewers but scores points with me. (Ironically, the movie is based on a novel by a New Age healer, in which Maggie had in a previous life commited to defending Cody and the cults of Ancient Egypt factor in strongly).
In the film (as in Peretti's classic, This Present Darkness) the bad guys are worshiping the devil under the guise of New Age spirituality. That got a lot of people angry back when it came out, but from a biblical perspective, of course New Age phrases like "do what you will, will what you do" are synonymous with Satanism, if not with the overt devil-worship of this movie. The bad guys were obviously bad, but they were putting forth a bright, vaguely positive public face of empowerment with brochures like "There Is No God But You: Lose Your False Idols To Find Yourself." My theological gripes with any of this are minor.
And, of course, the good guys were definitively good as well. (Maybe a little too good, but good.) Intercutting nuns in responsive prayer with the climactic action sequence may seem corny to most viewers (even while intercutting assassinations with an infant baptism is somehow awesome), but I dug the heck out of it. And showing the hardened FBI investigator privately praying for help? Well, most movies just don't have the sand to even try and pull that off.
The assumption that "all of us are chosen by God" is actually voiced by a major character. Jesus disagrees (Matt 22:14). Along the same lines, there is much talk of "leading people to God," but no mention of how. This is only one gripe, but it's huge. We wouldn't (and shouldn't) expect a Hollywood movie to lay out salvation by grace through faith, but when it brings up the notion of salvation without the cross or repentence or faith, it can do a whole lot of damage by reinforcing generic notions of universalism and Pelagianism held natively by all of us.
And, really, what is the function of this girl? Is she destined to be a great evangelist? Prophet? Co-redemptrix? We just don't know. This generic notion of "new female quasi-messiah" is present in other movies from the same era, and always equally confusing. Her main gift/superpower seems to be making things (e.g. toys, plates) spin really fast. When she does this for the antagonist, he asks, "Is that all you can do?" I was sort of thinking the same thing.
It's a tie between the reveal of the freaky ginger kid in the dress when you think it's actually Cody and the nanny-morphing into a demon and smacking the window of the subway car (the only really convincing digital effect in the movie). I've seen the beautiful Greek actress who plays the nanny in several other movies going back decades, but now all I can think of when I see her is that she's about to morph into a monster and stab a priest in the eyes with her knitting needles.
Most Memorable Lines:
- "First and foremost, we tried to make it theologically correct, which is something I'd learned with The Omen." -Mace Neufield, producer (from the DVD special feature)
- "I've never fired a gun before, but I'll bet at this range I'm dead on."
- "She's going to lead people to God. A lot of people." (Neat! Umm... how?)
- When the baddie tells Cody to jump off the top of a building to prove she believes in God, she turns to him and cooly says, "After you." A pretty awesome moment. And another example of how, like most '90s cinema, Bless the Child made for a way cooler trailer than actual movie.