Bless the Child

A B-thriller with A-movie window dressing, "Bless the Child" combines the most rudimentary of Catholic-inspired good vs. evil plots with visual effects that would barely pass muster in episodic TV. It reps another disappointing outing from Kim Basinger, who's clearly uninspired by the hack material. A sort of good-child counterpart to producer Mace Neufeld's blockbuster "The Omen," supernatural silliness will be cursed with indifferent response from auds geared to scarier, more powerful chills. Ancillary prospects appear only marginally better.

A B-thriller with A-movie window dressing, “Bless the Child” combines the most rudimentary of Catholic-inspired good vs. evil plots with visual effects that would barely pass muster in episodic TV. It reps another disappointing outing from Kim Basinger, who’s clearly uninspired by the hack material. A sort of good-child counterpart to producer Mace Neufeld’s blockbuster “The Omen,” supernatural silliness will be cursed with indifferent response from auds geared to scarier, more powerful chills. Ancillary prospects appear only marginally better.

Project marks a sign that horror-spiritual genre is in decline. That fact will become even more apparent when, not long after current pic rolls out, the release of director William Friedkin’s new cut of “The Exorcist” will restore true onscreen fright to which recent batch of also-rans cannot hope to compare. Indeed, what’s most notable about “Bless the Child” is how tired its thrills are and how seriously it takes itself in the face of subject matter screaming out for some kind of witty tweaking.

Script, care of Tom Rickman, Clifford Green and Ellen Green, issues expository information like UPS deliveries, as in opening where psychiatric nurse Maggie O’Connor (Basinger), minding her business on a New York City transit bus during the Christmas season, is told by a perfect stranger that the Star of Bethlehem is making its first return since the appearance of baby Jesus. On her doorstep, Maggie finds heroin-addicted sister Jenna (Angela Bettis) carrying 9-day-old baby Cody. Resenting Maggie’s concerns about the baby’s health, Jenna runs away, leaving Maggie to raise the obviously gifted child.

Of course, these aren’t the usual gifts, but the kind that make Frisbees spin and dead pigeons come back to life. The medical diagnosis of autism seems to satisfy Maggie.

Turning 6, Cody (Holliston Coleman) talks about herself in the third person, has haunted eyes and seems aware of approaching menace in the form of black-clad men abducting kids who are later found dead.

Murder spree befuddling NYPD draws in FBI in the form of John Travis (Jimmy Smits), former seminary student who’s an expert in ritual murder and the occult. Travis notes that the markings on victims hint at killers with great knowledge of ancient rites, including the so-called Black Easter.

In tandem with Maggie catching a Leeza Gibbons interview with Eric Stark (Rufus Sewell), leader of rehabilitation group New Dawn, runaway Cheri (Christina Ricci) ends up at Maggie’s hospital ward, where she warns the nurse that “the club” she’s run away from wants Cody. Cheri soon runs away — the first of several instances in increasingly dumb plot in which characters are told to stay put and then do just the opposite.

Maggie has mounting horrific visions (including gargoyle-inspired bats and Cody’s bedroom teeming with rats), but ignores Travis’ advice to come under FBI witness protection after Cody is abducted by Stark and the suddenly resurfaced Jenna, who has married the cult leader.

Story succumbs to crude narrative mechanics, as characters such as Cheri and occult-hunting Reverend Grissom (Ian Holm, given no more than one terribly written scene) fill Maggie in on all she and we need to know about Stark’s efforts as the devil’s agent to tempt Christlike Cody to the dark side. There are odd appearances of strangers — angels without halos who either regularly rescue Maggie or make themselves known to Travis — but presence of such a force, to say nothing of Cody’s considerable physical and spiritual powers, begs question why Stark’s evil band isn’t easily and quickly wiped out.

More problematic is that pic barely registers a scare, due to helmer Chuck Russell’s cloddish direction and sense of action. Maggie’s mounting visions amount to low-grade digital effects that provide a little tingle and then disappear in a flash — including a giant devil creature in pic’s ultra-hackneyed climax.

Actual threat to protags seems bogus and weak-kneed, draining desperately needed sense of menace from extremely familiar re-take on Catholic battle against the fallen angels.

The thrill certainly seems gone from Basinger, an actor who raises her game when she’s challenged but appears truly bored with the assignment here. Only in an early faceoff with Bettis does she have a chance to delve into character.

Smits returns to the kind of procedural work he did for years on “NYPD Blue”; it’s a bland perf suited to purely plot-driven role. In her first big role, Coleman suggests a complex mind ticking behind the innocent face, but it will take other projects to see what this child actor really has to offer.

List of fine thesps is utterly wasted, especially the usually marvelous Holm. Standout bad turn, though, belongs to Sewell, who’s encouraged to toss off smirking, wise-ass glances as a substitute for an interesting take on evil.

Production values are a tad cut-rate by Neufeld’s standards. Christopher Young’s heavily stringed score leans toward cliches, while Peter Menzies’ anamorphic lensing is solidly pro.

Bless the Child

Production

A Paramount Pictures release of a Paramount Pictures and Icon Prods. presentation of a Mace Neufeld production. Produced by Mace Neufeld. Executive producers, Robert Rehme, Lis Kern, Bruce Davey. Co-producer, Stratton Leopold. Directed by Chuck Russell. Screenplay, Tom Rickman, Clifford Green, Ellen Green, based on the novel by Cathy Cash Spellman.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Peter Menzies; editor, Alan Heim; music, Christopher Young; production designer, Carol Spier; supervising art director, Elinor Rose Galbraith; set designers, Michael Madden, Elis Lam; set decorator, Peter P. Nicolakakos; costume designer, Denise Cronenberg; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Owen Langevin; supervising sound editors, Stephen Hunter Flick, Beth Sterner; visual effects, MVFX; visual effects supervisors, Joel Hynek, Glenn Neufeld; digital effects supervisor, Peter Plevritis; makeup and creature effects, Keith Vanderlaan's Captive Audience Prods.; makeup and creature effects supervisor, Brian Sipe; assistant director, Matthew Rowland; casting, Deborah Aquila, Sarah Halley Finn. Reviewed at Paramount Studios Theater, Hollywood, Aug. 9, 2000. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 107 MIN.

With

Maggie O'Connor - Kim Basinger John Travis - Jimmy Smits Cody - Holliston Coleman Eric Stark - Rufus Sewell Jenna - Angela Bettis Cheri - Christina Ricci Bugatti - Michael Gaston Sister Rosa - Lumi Cavazos Dahnya - Dimitra Arlys Stuart - Eugene Lipinski Maria - Anne Betancourt Reverend Grissom - Ian Holm

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