When mainstream critics rave about a horror movie, watch out. Frailty, 2002’s winner of the Blair Witch Overpraised Indie Horror Award, has a few fine moments before turning gimmicky and twisty, but longtime horror fans won’t find anything especially fresh in this humorless and derivative rural psychodrama. The pain and terror of watching a beloved father go violently insane was handled far better in Stephen King’s The Shining; religious mania was done brilliantly in The Rapture; a Texan family united by slaughter was perfected in … well, you know. Frailty reminded me of Sam Raimi’s two slowpoke rural thrillers, A Simple Plan and The Gift; admirers of those films may take the following with a grain of salt.

Making his directing debut, Bill Paxton has picked a script (by Brent Hanley) that offers him a plum role: a loving yet deranged dad. This means he gets to kill people with an ax and volunteer to help his eldest son with his math homework. (No, not simultaneously. Though if he did, this’d be more my kind of movie.) Paxton plays Dad (the credits provide no other name) as a decent, hard-workin’ (an auto mechanic), God-fearin’ son of Texas who receives a visit from an angel one night. The angel, clearly not of the soothing Roma Downey variety, has bad news for Dad: the end is near, demons walk among us, and they must be destroyed. In a later scene, Dad — in the closest, probably inadvertently, this sober-sided movie ever comes to a laugh — looks deep into the underside of a car and sees the angel pointing a flaming sword at him. “There’s your trouble, ma’am,” I imagine Dad telling the car’s owner on Monday, “there’s a demon in your carburetor. An angel pointed it out to me. We’re gonna need to get a new part in for that.”

Dad’s sudden mission to go demon-busting distresses his elder boy, Fenton (Matthew O’Leary), who suspects that Dad’s cheese has slid off his cracker; Fenton’s younger brother Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) takes to the calling like a natural-born killer, sweetly and obsequiously enabling Dad’s homicidal fantasies. There are two ways the script could’ve gone from here, both of them interesting. It could’ve stayed with the grim reality of living with a demon-slaying dad; or it could’ve literalized the conflict and had Dad’s victims actually turn out to be demons — I mean horned, Buffy the Vampire Slayer demons. The latter would’ve been cheeseball, but it might’ve been more fun than what we get. In a present-day framing sequence, we keep going back to the adult Fenton (Matthew McConaughey in one of his glowering, I’m-about-to-piss-a-fish-hook performances) trying to convince an FBI agent (Powers Boothe) that he knows who’s been committing some recent murders dubbed the God’s Hand killings. Gee, there are just so many people in this densely populated film the killer could be!

I was with Frailty as long as it promised to be an adult thriller tackling the always-intriguing topic of religious mania with some complexity. The script, though, abandons the complexity almost entirely. Dad’s victims do turn out to be demons, of a sort — one victim in particular is presumably a wife-beating lout — so, hey, maybe Dad is doing God’s work. The narrative leads to a twist, and then a twist in that twist, and Frailty just becomes another “clever” Chinese-box movie. There is the potential for greatness and true horror in this film, and that potential is dashed against such plot stupidities as a character being kept in solitude without food for over a week and miraculously not starving (did the angel sneak him Twinkies?), or the Dead Zone rip-off chintziness of Dad laying hands on his victims and then recoiling as he gets a peek at the past sins of the “demons.” Frailty, indeed, feels like Sling Blade rewritten at a crawl by Stephen King, who is quoted gushingly in the movie’s ads; did he actually enjoy this lukewarm reheating of his work, or did he just appreciate Bill Paxton and Brent Hanley’s sincerest form of flattery?

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