Set in today's New York but shot largely in Toronto, Bless The Child feels like a paint-by-numbers, hocus pocus, Catholic thriller that recalls Stigmata and End Of Days, neither of which succeeded at a similar game a year ago.
The new movie is directed by veteran Chuck Russell, who did the strong Nightmare On Elm Street III, which he also co-wrote, and the Jim Carrey sensation The Mask. The guy's got credits. What he lacks this time is passion.
Bless The Child motors along in first gear for far too long to generate the thrills it needs. At the same time, character development is superficial, especially with Kim Basinger as the dull leading lady and Jimmy Smits muted as the hero.
Written by Tom Richman and Clifford and Ellen Green from the Cathy Cash Spellman novel, the film is the story of a psychiatric nurse, played by Basinger, who raises her drug-addicted younger sister's new baby daughter alone.
And it turns out, this being a supernatural saga, that the child is a new millennium Christ figure. Wrongly diagnosed as autistic, she shows a growing awareness of eerie superpowers when she turns six. This is precisely when the leader of a Satanic cult (Rufus Sewell as a bug-eyed loony) tries to kidnap the kid to take her over to the dark side.
Sewell's gang has already murdered five other kids while looking for the chosen one. Bless The Child is every parent's worst nightmare taken to graphic and horrifying extremes and mixed up with a cult that mocks the image of Scientology.
The rest of the movie is one big, old-fashoned good-versus-evil fight to the death, with a child in peril and Smits as the God-fearing cop who investigates the murders.
As genre cinema, Bless The Child is middling fare, too much of a bloodfest to let the characters progress beyond stereotypes, too much of a special effects extravaganza to be really tense, too draggy to really captivate audiences.
The actors struggle just to infuse a few scenes with a bit of unique business. Basinger's work is so bland you have to think her character never recovers from an early concussion. She is dense and deadpan even when all Hell breaks loose. Inertia has no sex appeal in a heroine.
Smits, meanwhile, over-reacts and looks so hollow-eyed you have to think he needs a good night's sleep. Sewell just over-acts, but people playing agents of the Devil usually do.
Support players Christina Ricci and Ian Holm have throw-away roles unworthy of their stature. Holliston Coleman does have interesting moments as the blessed child. A host of familiar Canadian faces pops up in thankless parts.
It is also unfortunate that this kind of movie always has to end in hellish chaos with some or all of senseless panic, endless gunplay, a few blinding apparitions of light, gloomy ghouls and the mother of all conflagrations.
We need fresh blood and a new perspective in this very particular and peculiar genre, but Bless The Child isn't it.
(This film is rated PG)