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Bless The Child (2000)

Comically serious, with a streak of the devoutly ridiculous, this fundamentalist horror movie can conceive of Good and Evil only in the simplest manner, and uses the power of faith to justify absurd story turns. A late-comer to the millennial clutch of Devil Movie throwbacks, this adopts 1970s modes of narrative, copping not only from the generic deadend of William Friedkin's monumentally overrated The Exorcist (1973) and the Biblical footnotery of current producer Mace Neufeld's The Omen (1976) but also from the rash of TV movies that proliferated around that time and discovered robed devil-worshippers in suburbia (The Devil's Daughter, 1973, Good Against Evil, 1977) or various educational establishments (Satan's School for Girls, 1973, The Initiation of Sarah, 1978).

Set beside trendier if no-less-silly theological doodlings like End of Days (1999) and Stigmata (1999), this comes off as rather staid, with young middle-aged heroine Kim Basinger rushing about the city trying to save a (literally) angelic child from Satanism while various parties (including Ian Holm as a one-scene priest) explain things to her. It adopts old-fashioned attitudes (tattooed punks and street people are liable to be in on a Satanic conspiracy) and filmmaking techniques rather than going for the neo-goth, Se7en (1995)-influenced look of competing apocalypses. Aside from ominous gargoyles under the opening credits and (implausibly) just opposite Cody's bedroom window (echoed by the ropey CGI demons Maggie sees after she's been bashed on the bonce), Bless the Child has few visual frills, which means that the divine or demonic interventions come from nowhere and provoke giggles rather than awe or terror. Chuck Russell, a shaky A-list director on the strength of the Blob remake, The Mask (1994) and Eraser (1996), rattles through the film on auto-pilot, opting (like End of Days) for action over atmosphere and hoping against all sense that the theology will take care of itself.

Based on a novel by Cathy Cash Spellman, in which the heroine was the child's grandmother, the script is mostly by Clifford and Ellen Green, who have taken this route before with the equally devout and unlikely The Seventh Sign (1988), with an uncredited brush and polish by Don Roos of The Opposite of Sex (1998) that must have persuaded Christina Ricci to take the tiny but hilarious role of the cult runaway. Ricci hands over the crucial address and then gets amusingly decapitated on the New York subway just before Basinger has a chance to do the old reviving-on-the-tracks-and-scrambling-out-of-the-way-of-an-oncoming-train routine. Holliston Coleman emerges far better from this farrago than far more experienced players, working hard at Cody's innocent ambiguity with a side order of messianic glower, raising doves from the dead and demonstrating telekinetic power over plates and snow-globes. Cody, we are told, is destined 'to lead a lot of people to God', though the script doesn't quite go so far as to say that she is Jesus reborn or tackle any of the problems established Christian churches might have with a female new messiah.

Bless the Child is a rare Devil movie that allows the good guys to call on God for intervention in the plot, which often comes in the form of supernaturally helpful polite strangers who offer advice (after he has asked the Lord for help with the case, Travis is visted by a black janitor who tells him 'a good man is never alone') or actual help (Maggie is hauled out of a car just about to go over a bridge and escapes from pursuers because a woman holds open a subway train door). A problem with this is that it reduces well-intentioned characters to chess pieces, as if this were a modern rerun of Jason and the Argonauts (1963), in which the Gods persistently shove the players all over the board to alleviate their own boredom but with little point for humanity. Why was Maggie trusted to escape from the subway train but not the teetering car?

Religious conviction remains a tricky subject for Hollywood cinema, which falls down on character points like Travis's decision to be an FBI agent rather than a priest ('I found another way to fight him'). This is nevertheless equal-opportunity idiocy, with the Devil represented by the unsubtly-named Eric Stark, who has been re-enacting the Slaughter of the Innocents (why?) and wants to replay the temptation in the desert but with a different outcome. Rufus Sewell is provided with thin material as the child star-turned-addict-turned-rehab-figurehead-turned-Devil's Acolyte whose elaborate backstory just pays off with smirks and stares. In the end, Stark loses not only because God is against him but because he makes the elementary mistake of blundering against unsteady burning braziers while wearing inflammable robes.

First Published In: Sight and Sound February 2001 p.36 (UK)

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