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Bless the Child   D

Paramount Pictures

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Chuck Russell
Writers: Tom Rickman, Clifford Green, Ellen Green (based on the novel by Cathy Cash Spellman)
Cast: Kim Basinger, Rufus Sewell, Jimmy Smits, Christina Ricci, Holliston Coleman, Angela Bettis, Ian Holm, Yan Birch, Yumi Cavozos.

Review by Rob Vaux

Satan can be tricky to pull off in this day and age. The notion of a sinister trickster with horns and a pitchfork almost seems quaint compared to toxic waste and genocidal wars. Even the occult trappings of black robes and inverted pentagrams are more silly than sinister, like the spookhouse of a bad carnival. To make Satan work in the movies takes extraordinary finesse (De Niro's gleeful soul catcher in Angel Heart comes to mind) -- finesse which Bless the Child unfortunately lacks.

In fact, Bless the Child doesn't even have Satan; instead, we get his bush-league flunky in the form of pseudo-New Ager Eric Stark (Rufus Sewell). Stark runs an organization ostensibly intended to help young runaways, but actually serving as a marshalling ground for the forces of the Antichrist. While not burning hobos alive or seducing young people to join his ever-growing army, he does the usual Bidding of My Dark Master sort of stuff. Apparently, that involves kidnapping a whole bunch of six-year-old children in an effort to find the new messiah: some little boy or girl out there has marvelous powers, and Stark wants to corrupt the child before he or she leads people to God. After an exhaustive search, he finally finds a match in Cody O'Connor (Holliston Coleman), an autistic little girl under the care of her aunt Maggie (Kim Basinger). One kidnapping later, he and Maggie find themselves in a face-off for the child's soul... and the future of the human race.

Bless the Child suffers from a very contrived storyline and plot that pushes the characters around for no reason other than to create tension. Director Chuck Russell approaches the material with a curious lack of energy, while allowing some very talented actors (Jimmy Smits, Christina Ricci, Ian Holm for God's sake) to founder about helplessly. Its fundamental undoing, however, lies in its dreadful mishandling of its villain. The power of Satan as a character lies in his charm, in his ability to make evil sound disturbingly rational. The devil ain't scary if we don't find him threatening, and while Stark isn't the devil, he needs an air of menace to make things work. Unfortunately, he never captures that terrible charisma, sounding more like a used car salesman than a master corrupter. He bumbles his way through several inept schemes, leaves clues for the police at murder scenes, and snatches Cody with all the skill of a teenager shoplifting on a dare. Though the film insists that he has great powers -- with an army of runaways and cunning which conveniently appears whenever the story needs a goose -- he mostly comes across as an incompetent twerp.

The film also makes a terrible error of letting the Distinguished Opposition appear on the scene. Several times during the picture, Maggie and Cody receive convenient help by mysteriously benevolent saviors (one of whom sports long hair and a beard, wink-wink), who vanish once completing their good deeds. Satan has always been the lesser half of the Christian equation. As long as he's going against us puny mortals he can be scary, but the minute God makes an appearance his race is run. By allowing the Almighty to help the protagonists out, the filmmakers rob their story of what little tension remains, damaging an already flawed production beyond repair.

A few bright spots appear hear and there -- Basinger gives it the old college try and Colemen makes a very cute Cody -- but two talented actors (or three, or six) can't save Bless the Child from such overarching flaws. Watching it stumble about reminds one how difficult this sort of material can be, and how Satan needs more than some bad CGIs to be truly scary. If you want to see His Infernal Majesty done properly, keep a lookout for the re-release of The Exorcist next month. Perhaps the makers of Bless the Child could catch a screening. And take notes.

Review published 08.18.2000.

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