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Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2001

Oh Father, forgive us our cinematic trespasses



Bless the Child

Rating: * * 1/2
Director: Chuck Russell
Running time: 107 minutes
Language: English
Opens Dec. 1 at the Shibuya Tokyu 3 Theater

Why is it that a huge chunk of the horror-movie market is comprised of the Christian version of Good vs. Evil? The trend hit peak levels before Y2K, when film after film predicted the coming Armageddon and caused my friend Sammy in Chinatown, N.Y., to remark: "What about us? We don't get the New Year until February; don't care for no Satan but that don't mean they can just ignore us!"

Holliston Coleman in "Bless the Child"

Sorry, Sammy, they did. And continue to, in films like "Bless the Child," which draws on such tired and obvious icons/symbols as nuns, masses, Bible passages, ritual slayings, Lucifer worship, Madonna statues, resurrections. It's hard to feel scared by any of it, though director Chuck Russell ("The Mask," "Eraser") tries his mighty best with dark and shaky lighting, and hallucinatory insert clips involving a lot of rats scurrying across tiled floors. Yawn.

"Bless the Child" is a classic example of how an excellent filmmaking technique and cast can fail to redeem the narrow-mindedness of a story. Other world religions, societies with lunar calendars and non-Christian religious holidays are ignored in the adamant belief there is only one form of Evil and one kind of Good to combat it. Who cares what monks in a Tibetan monastery would have to say? Is this not, like, so arrogantly Judeo-Christian-centric? Isn't it hugely guilty of political incorrectness, especially in this day and age? Geez.

Kim Basinger fans, however, will be gratified to see her back, this time as a dutiful, fighting mother figure. She plays Maggie, a psych-ward nurse living alone in New York after her husband ditched her. On Christmas night she is visited by drug-addicted little sister Jenna (Angela Bettis), who thrusts a 9-day-old baby girl in her arms and disappears. Maggie had always wanted a child, even if Cody (Holliston Coleman) shows signs of autism and requires a huge amount of love and work.

The pair live like mother and daughter for six years until Jenna, rehabilitated and with new celebrity husband Eric (Rufus Sewell) in tow, returns to take Cody back. Also a reformed addict, Eric dedicates his time and considerable fortune to running detox-cum-therapy clinics under the name New Dawn. Maggie doesn't trust him and feels Cody should be allowed more time to adjust to her new guardians, but Jenna snatches her and takes off. Maggie is frantic, especially when she learns from FBI agent John Travis (Jimmy Smits) that New Dawn clinics are steeped in religious fanaticism. Travis tells her they could also be involved in the ritual serial killings of 6-year-olds that have been plaguing the city for six months.

Then an addict called Cherie (Christina Ricci) appears before Maggie to spill the beans about Eric's secret society. She says New Dawn feeds on satanic worship and urges Maggie to rescue Cody before it's too late. Apparently, Cody's autism is linked to special powers that Eric wants. Through Cody, he will call upon and connect with the Devil. (The logic of all this is fuzzy -- having to do with the star of Jacob ascending on Dec. 16, which is Cody's birthday.) Anyway, Eric wants Cody to sit at the throne of Evil and say yes to having the Devil come over. Cody, of course, is a good, sweet little girl and refuses to give in, even when Eric brings in her beloved Maggie and points a gun at her head.

In the meantime, the nuns at Cody's School For Autistic Children are down on their knees and praying like mad, along with eccentric but learned Jesuit priest Father Grissom (Ian Holm). Gradually, a milky white light builds on the stained glass windows and start to flutter like angels. And there you have it, a scene all set and ready for the Miracle of Goodness to kick in and do its work.

While the theory that autistic children are equipped with powers different from "normal" kids is compelling, neither Russell nor the scriptwriters want to dwell on it very much. They'd rather move on to candles that light by themselves in Eric's black-magic church, and lightning that splits trees, etc. ?One begins to fear that someone is going to bring out a Ouija board and can only sigh with relief when the cops finally burst in.

Actually, the scariest thing in the movie is Angela Bettis, who at this point can play dying/consumptive/anorexic characters with no makeup and is so credible as the strung-out Jenna one hopes she will appear on an antidrug campaign poster: "Say No or Become Like This." The circles under her eyes alone bring on tears and goosebumps.



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