Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Film Appreciation - No Soul Is Safe

Cody Hamman sings the praises of Bill Paxton's Frailty for Film Appreciation.

Actor Bill Paxton has appeared in several genre movies over the years, but I was still a little surprised when it was revealed that he would be making his feature directorial debut with a horror movie. That wasn't the original intention when the producers approached him about the subject, but after Paxton read the screenplay by Brent Hanley he felt that he could be the one to bring the story to the screen.

The film begins with FBI agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) arriving at FBI headquarters in Dallas, Texas to find a strange sight in the parking lot - an out-of-town ambulance parked in front of the building - and more strangeness in his own office. A man named Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) has come to tell him the identity of the serial killer Doyle has been investigating, the God's Hand killer.

Fenton tells Doyle that the killer was his three years younger brother Adam, who confessed to him over the phone before killing himself. Fenton had promised Adam that he would bury him in the public rose garden they grew up behind in Thurman, Texas and has stolen the ambulance containing his brother's body so he can do just that.

Adam's reasoning for killing people is that he believed they were demons, demons are taking over the world, and he was on a mission from God to eradicate them. This is a story that Fenton is all too familiar with. It's a story their father told them when they were young kids, back in 1979.

The majority of Frailty takes place in 1979, as we see the story Fenton tells Doyle play out. Matt O'Leary and Jeremy Sumpter play young Fenton and Adam in these flashback sequences, and in '79 they were being raised by their single father, who we only ever know as Dad (Bill Paxton). These three guys seem to have a close, loving, fun relationship, this seems like a very good household. And then one night Dad has a vision - he says an angel has spoken to him. Demons are taking over the world, they walk among us and you can't tell them apart from regular people. But this family of three has been chosen to serve as God's Hands and they are meant to kill these demons during the build-up to Judgment Day.

Dad continues to have visions that lead him to the items they're meant to use on their mission: a pair of gloves, an axe that has OTIS carved into the handle, a small piece of pipe. Then an angel with a flaming sword brings them the list of demons they need to kill. Soon enough, Dad is bringing home "demons" - who look just like regular, terrified people - to murder them in their workshed and bury their bodies in the rose garden.

This is some deeply disturbing stuff, because this is all absolutely insane. Dad has to have lost his mind. While Adam is still young enough to wholeheartedly believe everything his father tells him, Fenton is on the verge of adolescence, he's thinking for himself and has a better grasp on how the world works. He thinks his dad has gone crazy, and he doesn't know how to handle the situation. A large portion of the audience will probably agree that Dad has gone crazy, and it is horrifying when he starts murdering people, at least they look like people, and he involves his young children in the murders.

Whenever Dad puts his bare hands on the people, he is shocked with visions of the evil deeds they have committed, the proof that they are demons. Adam says he sees it, too. Fenton sees nothing. His father has gone mad and he has twisted the mind of his little brother, too. He has to stand up to his Dad and put an end to this situation. But when he pushes back, things just get even tougher to endure.

Of course, Fenton survives the ordeal, he's the one telling the story, but we don't know how things were resolved, how he got out of it, what happened with Dad and Adam. The film is captivating while it leads us to the answers.

Frailty is excellently crafted, and it's a movie that I truly believe every horror fan should see at some point. It got some attention when it was first released in November of 2001, at which time I saw it in the theatre, but has gotten sort of obscure over the years since. You don't see it mentioned much, a lot of people haven't watched it, but it's always near the top of my list when I'm thinking of showing someone horror movies they've likely never seen before.

It's got a troubling, intriguing concept, and Hanley's script is well-written and moves along at a good, quick pace. It really feels like Paxton was the perfect director to bring it to the screen, too. He wanted to give the movie an old school, classic film feel, and he achieved that for the most part. It's very grounded and natural, capturing a realistic feeling of terrible events occurring in small town America, which makes the whole thing seem much more nightmarish than it would have been if the film were overly stylized.

If you love horror, seek out Frailty and give it a chance. It impressed me in 2001 and has continued to impress me every time I've watched it again since. Maybe it will impress you as well, and maybe we can help to make Frailty a bit less obscure.

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