If you’re at all familiar with the kind of films you find for free on Amazon Prime, you won’t be surprised to learn that 2000’s Bless The Child has recently joined the ranks. On Rotten Tomatoes, the supernatural horror is ranked 64th on their list of the worst movies of all time.
Bless The Child stars Kim Basinger as Maggie O’Connor, a psychiatric nurse who adopts her newborn niece Cody when she is abandoned by her heroin addicted mother. As she grows up, Cody (Holliston Coleman) is thought to be autistic and is sent to a Catholic school that cares for children with special needs.
For the bulk of the film, the horror and supernatural elements take a back seat to procedural crime. As well as Maggie, Bless The Child follows FBI Special Agent John Travis (Jimmy Smits) as he investigates a series of child murders. Maggie is drawn into this when her sister Jenna (Angela Bettis) returns with her new self-help guru husband Eric Stark (Rufus Sewell) and attempts to take the now six-year-old Cody back. The probability that Maggie would have had to have legally adopted Cody years ago is never discussed.
Cheri (Christina Ricci), a member of Stark’s cult-like organisation The New Dawn Foundation, tells Maggie that Eric is looking for a child saint destined to lead people to God so he can prevent that from happening. Eric thinks Cody, whose unusual behaviour is no longer suspected to be autism but telekinesis, may be that child.
The plot is convoluted. It isn’t entirely clear why Stark is so committed to thwarting the emergence of a new saint that he is prepared to murder multiple children. His Scientology-esque cult seems to be providing him with all the wealth and fame he could want, even with the continued success of established religions.
Various other plot points don’t make a lot of sense, regardless of whether you can suspend your disbelief enough to buy into the premise.
At one point, a henchman chloroforms Maggie (yes, that old famously inaccurate chestnut) and she wakes up alone in the driver’s seat of a moving car. She regains consciousness as the car is about to fall off a bridge, just in time to be rescued by a mysterious stranger. You might assume that the stranger will be revealed to be an angel, given how heavily the film leans into its religious themes, but you would be wrong because he is never seen again. As if all this wasn’t unbelievable enough, the car explodes between falling off the bridge and hitting the water below.
Later on, there is a high-speed car chase between Maggie in a 1992 Ford Tempo and a stretched limousine (because a limo is definitely an agile enough car to chase someone in).
Bless The Child is absolutely a product of its time. The CGI probably looked fine 20 years ago, and there are more subtle parts of it that even look fine now. As the film reaches its climax, however, and more supernatural elements come into play, it feels somewhat dated.
Perhaps a more uncomfortable sign of its age is the depiction of autism. When presented with the diagnosis, Maggie (who is a psychiatric nurse) argues that Cody can’t be autistic because “she shows love like any other child”. It’s difficult to know where to begin when explaining why this is problematic.
The most interesting story in the whole film is Cody’s – that of a small, vulnerable girl who is dragged into a chaotic adult world she can’t possibly understand. Unfortunately, she seems pushed to the side in favour of other narratives. She is reduced to a MacGuffin of a character that speaks awkwardly in the third person and doesn’t get much of a say in her own story.
Bless The Child is a weird film that doesn’t seem to know what it is. At times, it’s a procedural crime drama, tailing a detective as he investigates a string of murders. At other times, it is a supernatural horror imbued with religious imagery. The almost comically stereotypical henchmen feel like they would be better suited to a Home Alone-style slapstick rather than a legitimate thriller. If the film overall has a message, it isn’t clear. Cults are bad… but the Catholic Church… is good?
For a piece of media that draws so much on Catholicism – the foundation of some of the most intense and spine-chilling stories, films and music ever produced – Bless The Child somehow manages to drag. It feels a lot longer than its 107-minute run time. It just doesn’t have enough substance to be so slow-paced. The film has such a surface-level relationship with its own source material that you can’t help but be struck by the irony of the Catholic Church being the driving force behind children being rescued from a cult.
Bless The Child’s saving grace (pun not intended, but also not regretted) is that it might make a good drinking game. Might.