You need to watch the most chilling cult thriller on HBO Max ASAP
“I found another way to fight him.”
Certain genres feel inseparable from a specific era.
Film noir harkens back to the 1930s, schlocky sci-fi suggests the 1970s, bombastic rock operas are from the 1980s. But what fate befalls films that feel tailor-made for certain eras but arrive long after they’ve ended?
This 2000 film now streaming on HBO Max encapsulates the last dying breaths of two different micro-genres. In fact, it may be one of the last paranormal thrillers to fully embrace the past.
Bless the Child is a 2000 paranormal thriller directed by Chuck Russell, a director better known for his truly wacky sci-fi movies A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, The Mask, The Blob (a remake, that is), and much-maligned Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson vehicle The Scorpion King.
In comparison to the rest of his filmography, Bless the Child is one of Russell’s most mature works. Based on a novel by the same name by Cathy Cash Spellman, the film follows Maggie, a psychiatric nurse played with pearl-clutching melodramatic poise by Kim Basinger. Maggie adopts her niece Cody after her drug addict sister abandons her week-old baby in her apartment.
Flash forward six years later, and Cody is a bright young girl who has autism but is doing well in her Catholic special needs school. She seems to have a hyperfixation for spinning objects around and around, to such a point that it appears she’s not touching the object at all. Maggie is struggling financially, but loves her niece and believes she can do great things.
Suddenly, Cody’s mother re-emerges on the arm of a rich former child star who now devotes his life to reforming wayward youth. But when the couple shows a new interest in Cody, it’s clear their intentions are not pure — in fact, they may be as evil as evil gets.
Maggie is caught between two forces, fighting equally against a satanic cult hunting Cody and the police force hesitant to believe such a horrible conspiracy. All doubt her except Agent John Travis (Jimmy Smits), a former seminary student who found a better path to fighting Satan — through law enforcement.
The action of Bless the Child wavers between the gory, as when wayward teen Cheri Post is decapitated in a subway station, to the laughable, as when Maggie has a dream of Cody’s room being covered in rats.
In fact, that rat dream sequence establishes just what makes this movie so great. Maggie sits at her giant turn-of-the-millennium desktop computer and pays Cody’s private school tuition online. While waiting for the transfer to go through, which runs at typical speeds for dial-up, she falls asleep and has a horrific vision — of thousands of terribly CGI-ed rats all over her niece’s room.
The special effects are so bad that they were called out for being unbelievable even upon the film’s initial release. It feels like watching an early episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer combined with a Lifetime movie: two genres known for low production values that still cultivated a devoted audience.
Bless the Child is possibly the last iteration of two other genres: the satanic panic cautionary tale, and the melodramatic conspiracy-theory thriller. In the last days of the ‘90s, the ‘80s obsession with Satanic cults corrupting children was still alive, but relegated to a fringe belief. Bless the Child combined it with scenery-chewing paranoid tension to create a film that could only exist in the year 2000.
All things need to come to an end eventually. This film probably marks a line in the sand between 20th and 21st century science-fiction, despite not aiming to be the bookend. It’s clear there won’t ever be another film like this. It’s a swan song of paranormal paranoia, and the perfect retro viewing for any cult enthusiast.
Bless the Child is now streaming on HBO Max.