On a night when the Star of Yacov shines in the sky over New York, reappearing for the first time since Bethlehem two-thousand years ago, drug addict Jenna (Angela Bettis) dumps her newly-born infant on big sister Maggie (Kim Basinger) and disappears. Having always longed for a child, Maggie raises the baby girl as her own. Six years later, the supposedly autistic, young Cody (Holliston Coleman) hears voices in her head and, whilst attending a Catholic-run special school, displays other unorthodox talents when she makes candles burn and brings a dead bird back to life.
Meanwhile, a sinister cult are kidnapping and murdering children off the streets and seminary student-turned F.B.I. Agent John Travis (Jimmy Smits) is assigned to the case. When Jenna reappears with her new husband, charismatic cult leader Eric Stark (Rufus Sewell) and takes Cody into their custody, Maggie and Agent Travis are drawn into an apocalyptic conflict between good and evil. Humanity’s fate rests with one special child.
Devil movies and the whole Antichrist genre made a comeback around the turn of the millennium, with the likes of Stigmata (1999), Lost Souls (2000) and End of Days (1999) struggling to out-spook each other with doomsday prophecies and satanic goings on. Adapted from a novel by Cathy Cash Spellman, Bless the Child offers an initially promising flipside to The Omen (1976). Instead of the son of Satan, we have a young female messiah and whereas The Omen series is somewhat theologically one-sided, this at least tries to work up some metaphysical discourse on the nature of good and evil. Sadly, the film is slow-paced and self-important, while director Chuck Russell fails to propel the action with enough pulp horror verve.
The film has essentially two plot strands. The first is a TV movie-of-the-week dressed up with supernatural frills. Basinger delivers an overly solemn performance as the single mother trying to take back her stolen child. The second, more interesting strand reworks Satan’s testing of Christ in the wilderness, proceeding as a series of trials that prepares Cody to become the new messiah. Avoiding outright cruelty, since a corrupted messiah is more valuable than a dead one, Stark challenges Cody’s faith by seeing whether God can prevent a homeless man committing suicide, or making her jump from a ledge. There are interesting questions posed, but the script opts for easy answers and one wishes Hammer made this film twenty years ago, which might have delivered the biblically-inclined morality with more conviction and poetry.
Still, it’s nice to see a level playing field. While The Omen films are skewed towards having Christians thrown to the lions (or rather sliced, diced and decapitated), this has the requisite gory killings and satanic minions including some silly teenage Goths, CG demons and a devil nanny (another nod to The Omen) with lethal knitting needles, but also angelic helpers aiding Maggie and Travis along the way. Ian Holm cameos as a renegade priest who observes the concept of evil has become politically incorrect, but Christina Ricci is shamefully wasted as a former cultist-turned-informer who exists solely to provide what you might call “the big David Warner” moment.
Action-wise, the film picks up later on with a chase through the subway capped with a decapitation gag, and a steal from North By Northwest (1959) when a drugged Maggie awakens driving down the wrong lane on a busy freeway. It builds to a cool, monster-laden finale where nuns’ prayers combat slimy demons, a ritual sacrifice turns into a Waco-inspired siege and hosts of angels flock to Cody’s side. Although the script wastes the amusing idea of Stark being a former child star-turned-New Age self-help guru, the depiction of his New Dawn organisation (complete with sterile, user-friendly headquarters staffed chirpy, glassy-eyed believers and pamphlets offering catchy slogans) caused some offence to Scientologists.