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"BLESS THE CHILD"
(2000) (Kim Basinger, Jimmy Smits) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Supernatural Thriller/Horror: A nurse tries to protect her young niece from a Satan worshipper and his followers who plan to turn the six-year-old girl's supernatural powers from good to evil.
PLOT:
Maggie O'Connor (KIM BASINGER) is a single nurse who works in a New York-based psychiatric hospital. Her well-ordered life is suddenly disrupted when her estranged sister, Jenna (ANGELA BETTIS), a heroin addict, unexpectedly drops by and then leaves her week-old infant girl there. Not knowing what else to do, Maggie raises the girl as her own, loving her like the daughter she never had, despite the girl presumably suffering from autism, a mistaken diagnosis for her supernatural powers.

Six years later, Cody (HOLLISTON COLEMAN) is a happy little girl still living with Maggie and attending a special Catholic school where Sister Rosa (LUMI CAVAZOS) and the other nuns tend to their class of mentally challenged youngsters. Despite their challenges, those kids are luckier than the ones who've been murdered in what appears to be a serial killing spree that's drawn in special FBI agent John Travis (JIMMY SMITS). A former seminary student and current specialist in ritual homicides, Travis believes a cult of devil worshippers is responsible for the deaths.

At first that has nothing to do with Maggie and Cody, but when the former meets Cheri Post (CHRISTINA RICCI), a teenage junkie who knows of Cody's special gifts and warns that's what "they" want the girl for, Maggie becomes concerned. Her fears are then realized when Jenna suddenly shows up with her new husband, Eric Stark (RUFUS SEWELL), the founder of The New Dawn, a highly profitable self-help organization, and abducts the girl.

It gets worse when Travis informs Maggie that Stark's organization is really a front for a network of devil worshippers who are searching for a child born on a certain date and predestined to lead the masses to God. Realizing the supremacy he could attain by converting such a power from good to evil, Stark believes he's found the chosen child in Cody and sets out to shatter her belief in God. Realizing that Stark will kill Cody if he can't convert her and her powers to evil before Easter Day, Maggie and Travis race to find Cody and Stark and stop the madman before he does either.

OUR TAKE: 2 out of 10
While the mere mention of Catholicism elicits all sorts of reactions - both positive and negative - from various people of varying religious affiliations and backgrounds, you have to admire a religion that - at least from a cinematic standpoint - offers up so many tasty morsels for making great, or potentially great horror and suspense films.

Yes, Catholicism seems to have a stranglehold, if you will, on supernatural elements as far as movies are concerned. While other religions have their own versions of demons and other evil beings, few have made it to the silver screen as often as those associated with Catholicism. One only has to think of the granddaddy of such films, "The Exorcist," to be reminded of that religion's tie with horror films, but many others -- such as "The Omen," "The Seventh Sign," and even the recent "Stigmata" and "End of Days" -- have used such deep-rooted elements as the basis for their supernatural stories.

Most usually involve regular everyday people - more often than not those who've put religion on the back burner of their lives - who are suddenly afflicted with or terrorized by some sort of religious-based supernatural phenomenon that's eventually linked to Satan in one form or another. The Church is then called in - usually in the form of a priest - and the ages old battle between good and evil then begins, often followed by plenty of religious symbolism and both blood and Latin spewing from at least some of those involved.

While such a setup isn't necessarily a surefire recipe for a great or successful horror flick, it certainly has the makings for one, and every time another such film is released, one has to wonder if it will be as good, riveting and scary as "The Exorcist." Unfortunately, the latest such film, "Bless the Child," will probably only be frightening to the youngest of kids, those with weak constitutions, and the executives at Paramount Pictures. It's the latter who will be scared silly when the negative reviews of this film start appearing in newspapers as prominently as swarms of locusts acting as forbearers of upcoming calamities that, in this case, means this film's chances at the box office.

As directed by Chuck Russell ("Eraser," "Nightmare on Elm Street III") and written by Tom Rickman ("Everybody's All American," "Coal Miner's Daughter") and Clifford & Ellen Green ("The Seventh Sign," "Space Camp") - who work from the original novel by Cathy Cash Spellman - the film is nothing but a disappointing, disjointed and absurd collection of clichés and material from previous religious-based horror films.

Filled with unintentional laughs, some seriously bad acting courtesy of former Oscar winner Kim Basinger ("L.A. Confidential," "I Dreamed of Africa"), cheap and unrealistic looking special effects, and plenty of plot-related problems and gaping holes in logic and general common sense, the film starts off with a mediocre premise, and then quickly and progressively becomes more ludicrous as it proceeds.

The fact that the film is bad isn't that surprising since it's being released in August -- typically Hollywood's dumping ground season - but it is amazing that someone along the line didn't notice how bad and silly the film really was - either before or during its shooting. In fact, and if not for the star names involved, this is the sort of film that's usually earmarked for a straight to video or cable TV release rather than an expensive trip to the big screen.

While many horror films have the characters doing stupid things to goose the audience ("Don't go in that dark room by yourself without turning on the light after hearing weird sounds under the bed!"), this one just has stupid things for, well, apparently just to be stupid. The weakly written character poorly played by Basinger is one such creation, and her various actions and reactions more often than not elicit laughs, groans and disbelief rather than building suspense.

As such, our attention then turns to Jimmy Smits ("Price of Glory," "My Family, Mi Familia") who appears as the priest-like character (a former seminary student turned FBI agent). Instead of doing the standard religious battle with the demons and devil worshippers (usually the highlight of such films), however, his character feels like he's simply been transferred from the set of his old TV show, "N.Y.P.D. Blue," to this film without much of a makeover.

With the two heroic characters sidelined by various inadequacies, one imagines that they can turn to the villain for something "fun" and Rufus Sewell ("Dark City," "Dangerous Beauty") - along with cinematographer Peter Menzies, Jr. ("Disney's the Kid," "The General's Daughter") - does play up his wild-eyed look to near comic proportions (presumably to make him appear more instable and thus evil). While he makes a moderately convincing villain, he isn't frightening enough- considering the demonic aspects of the role - and isn't anywhere interesting as say, Al Pacino playing the Big Bad Guy in "The Devil's Advocate."

Seven-year-old Holliston Coleman (making her feature film acting debut) seems like she might have some talent, but if so, it's clearly obscured by her poorly conceived and developed character that won't elicit much response from viewers (save for the inherent "don't hurt the kids" response that's pre-programmed into most of us). Talented performers Ian Holm ("The Sweet Hereafter," "Joe Gould's Secret") and Christina Ricci ("Sleepy Hollow," the "Addams Family" films) are also present, but don't make much of an impression in their extended cameo roles.

With the script and Basinger collectively making for a lackluster mother in distress and/or Sigourney Weaver-type heroine character and thus essentially derailing that whole part of the plot, our attention then falls by default to Sewell's character attempting to convert Coleman's from good to evil. Unfortunately, and despite the obvious parallels to Darth Vader doing the same to Luke Skywalker (in fact I kept waiting for Stark to say, "Cody, I am your father"), that part of the film is rather lackluster as well.

That pretty much describes the film as a whole. Despite the proven, built-in religious/supernatural angle, the film just isn't scary or suspenseful enough, mainly because it's unlikely that viewers will take much of it seriously. Of course, the bad acting, poorly developed characters and storyline, and general, overall hokiness certainly don't help matters, and as such, the film simply didn't have much of a prayer of succeeding from the get-go. Likely to be exorcised rather quickly from theaters by critics and viewers alike, "Bless the Child" rates as just a 2 out of 10.




Reviewed August 7, 2000 / Posted August 11, 2000


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