The White Shoe Irregular:
It was fun while it lasted.

In the Dark: The Devil and Mr. Hollywood

Eric D. Snider

Movies about the devil aren't scary anymore. I watched "The Exorcist" recently, and my only thought was, "Man, this actress sure went on to do nothing, didn't she?" But when the film came out in 1974, people were terrified, and everyone began to think they were possessed, too, though this usually proved merely to be a result of the drugs they were taking. (Everyone was taking drugs in 1974. They were issued by the government.)

I think part of the problem is that we've become too jaded. We've seen so much actual evil in the world — Saddam Hussein, Jeffrey Dahmer, Eminem — that seeing a movie about fictional evil seems tame by comparison. The terror we face in life may not be Beelzebub himself, but at least it's real, and it's happening to us. Satan turning a little girl into a projectile vomiter on the DVD player is nothing compared to navigating the mall two days before Christmas.

Another reason devil movies don't scare us so much anymore is that there are too many of them, and most of them are poo. There have been several just in the past year, including "Stigmata," "The Ninth Gate," "End of Days" and "Battlefield Earth." (OK, "Battlefield Earth" was not technically about Satan, but don't try to tell me it wasn't evil in its own way.)

I'm not going to talk about "Stigmata" because it was so boring I can't remember a thing about it. It's possible I didn't even see it. And "End of Days" was a bad idea because it pit Arnold Schwarzenegger against the devil, which is awkward, because it leaves the viewer unsure whom to root for. In the end, they both lose, which I think is a nice compromise.

"The Ninth Gate" was directed by noted child-molestor Roman Polanski. In it, we learn that, in his spare time, the Prince of Darkness wrote a book. Sure, we knew he had ghost-written a few things — The Bridges of Madison County, Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Ann Landers's column three times a week, etc. — but to actually sit down and pen a tome himself! What a gem that would be, for any home library!

Johnny Depp plays a guy named Corso (it kept sounding like "Torso" to me, though) who is a rare-books expert called upon by serpentine multi-millionaire Balkan (Frank Langella) to verify the authenticity of his personal copy of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of the Shadows, which sounds like an awkward, over-long title for a first-time author, but why quibble with the Dark Master over his choice of names?

At any rate, only three copies of this guide to unleashing your inner devil are in existence, and Balkan has poorly explained reasons to believe that only one of them is legitimate. Corso's job is to find out which one it is. He is aided in a poorly explained way by a woman without a name who wants to help him unleash the book's poorly explained powers and achieve the poorly explained goal that one can achieve if one uses the book in a poorly explained (but apparently very precise) manner. This woman can float in mid-air for reasons that are, it goes without saying, poorly explained.

This is the kind of movie where people say things like "You don't know what you're getting yourself into" and "Flattery will get you nowhere" and expect to be taken seriously. The last line of the movie is, "What the crap was that?!," spoken by the audience as they ask for ticket refunds.

The most recent devil film is "Bless the Child," starring Kim Basinger. Kim is guardian of her niece, a six-year-old girl with special powers. She can make snow globes start snowing without shaking them first, and she resurrects a dead bird. Personally, I see these skills as barely useful in today's marketplace, considering there are other kids out there who can see dead people, but we'll take the movie's word for it that young Cody is pretty special.

Turns out the reason she has these quasi-powers is that she's some kind of Chosen One who is God's last hope in the battle against Satan. This annoys Satan (who is easily annoyed, frankly; one of his more unsavory qualities). Old Scratch has a plan, though, as he always does, since he seems to know the Bible pretty well yet apparently did not read the end of it, where he loses. His plan involves a guy named Eric, a former child actor who now runs a self-empowerment workshop that is actually a front for a cult of devil-worshippers (isn't that always the way with actors-turned-humanitiarians?). Eric kidnaps Cody with the intention of turning her to the dark side. If that doesn't work, he'll just kill her. It's a pretty good plan, really. I mean, if you're Satan, you're either going to try to win your adversary over to your side, or else eliminate her. Of course, you're going to want someone better than an actor-turned-humanitarian to carry out your plot — but if their only foes are a cement-faced Kim Basinger and an FBI agent played by Jimmy Smits (really stretching since leaving "NYPD Blue"), maybe everything will work out in your favor. What we have here, essentially, is an ineffectual minion of Satan up against two incompetent upholders of good. It's basically a fight to see who's the least mediocre.

I don't want to make a big issue of this, but if your movie is going to center around a young child, you need to choose a young child who is cute. This movie fails in this area, though again, I don't want to make an issue of it.

If you enjoy films in which six year olds are in constant terror, witnessing depraved acts of Satanism and having their lives threatened, then "Bless the Child" is the film for you. It's the feel-evil hit of the summer!