The golden age of horror: Frailty (2002)

Chris: Frailty is a movie that feels as if it will be a stark and rather brutal rumination on faith. What do you believe? How much do you believe it? What are you willing (or unwilling) to do as part of that? As the movie’s star and first-time director Bill Paxton layer in the tension (in no small part due to Matthew McConaughey trying out his Rust Cohle persona as the narrator), we wonder–how close to a twisted Abraham and Isaac scenario will this go movie go?

After the jump, and then M. Night Shyamalan shows up

Chris: There’s almost no part of Frailty that isn’t treated with a fairly heavy hand. The stylized 1970s setting is initially played so much for idyllic childhood bliss that I all but expected Atticus Finch to pull his town car in at dad’s garage to have the muffler checked. When dad comes home from work for the first time, I nearly burst out laughing. It felt like a stilted Saturday Night Live sketch. I understand that Paxton is setting things up for what follows, but did that Waltons routine really work for anyone?

Bill: It was a bit over the top, but I think intentionally so. Paxton wants us to get comfy. He wants us to relax. When the twist is revealed, I found it more effective because of that. Of course, it really is a pretty cliched entry point for horror films at this point. Halloween does something similar in its depiction of life in Haddonfield just prior to all hell breaking loose.

Chris: Frailty is also a great example of a rookie director screwing up his movie by putting in a special effects scene where he really, really should not have. When the angel/demon comes to visit dad in the garage, Paxton decides to give his audience a full view of it. The result has us treated to a visitation that feels equally influenced by Terry Gilliam’s portrayal of God in Monty Python’s Holy Grail and Dana’s refrigerator in Ghostbusters. It’s a clumsy, laugh-out-loud stumble that feels completely out of place with anything else in the film. The biggest error is showing us anything at all. The movie’s plot works best when fueled by the question of whether the angel is real or just a part of a dangerous psychosis.

Bill: Frailty isn’t my favorite horror film, I must admit. I think there were quite a few films from that same year that were much better (Cabin Fever, Malefique, Dark Water, to name a few), but I thought it was a good first try by genre stalwart Bill Paxton. Though I should preface that by saying that the holy trinity of horror and sci fi character actors for me is Paxton, Lance Henriksen and Bruce Campbell. So I probably give them more leeway than I should at times.

As for Paxton’s visions, I thought the first one set the tone for what the audience was supposed to accept in a succinct and salient fashion. It was a freakin’ silver trophy on his dresser. The selection of the “holy weapons” he was to use in his fight followed the same example. A great piece of misdirection that I wish they’d stuck with instead of the appearance of a Teutonic Marlboro Man with a sword.


Chris: Although I was willing to give myself over to the story even after that cartoonish flub, the ending feels like another belly flop. Screenwriter Brent Hanley decides that what this movie really needs is some Shyamalan plot twist, and so he delivers a ludicrous sibling switch that while well telegraphed, still surprised me because I didn’t think they were really going to go there. The final act felt like it was erasing what had come before in the movie. That can work, but I think it takes a defter touch than our first-time director was able to muster at this point in his career.

Bill: Again, I’m probably being too lenient on this film because of my fondness for Paxton, but I still enjoyed the film in spite of a few issues I took with it. For example, the twist is revealed in way too languid a manner for my taste, and McConaughey could have used a few more acting lessons. I kept expecting him to yell for craft services every time they cut back to him in a scene. I also don’t see the reveal that we’re actually watching Adam and not Fenton as the real twist. I thought it was supposed to be that their father was right all along. That they truly were on a mission from God. And a God who comes straight out of the fire and brimstone version of southern Baptist teachings of a vengeful God, which adds another layer of scare to the story right there.

Chris: That’s actually a good point, too, and if this script had figured out a way to make that the only reveal and twist I think I would have enjoyed this a bit more. I felt like this could have and should have been a bigger moment in the film, but instead I felt like it was almost buried behind the Adam/Fenton switch.

Bill: Speaking of the ending, one thing I’ve always found a tad confusing is Fenton’s nature. I believe that “demons” in this movie are really humans who’ve just committed unforgivable sins and have escaped mortal justice. But Adam tries to establish that Fenton is a true serial killer, and thus one of these demons. After spending the greater majority of its running time making him a sympathetic hero, it just makes it difficult to swallow that assertion. Combine that with whatever he was so intent on writing when Adam finally did catch up with him, and it creates some doubt for me as to the veracity of Adam’s real reason for going after Fenton. Could he have been another Sheriff Smalls, an innocent who had to die to protect the mission? Was he about to reveal his brother’s crusade to the world? Or was he an act of vengeance by Adam in retaliation for their father’s death?

Chris: Great questions. I’m not sure the movie is up to the challenge of answering them.

(Frailty is available to rent or own digitally from the usual VOD outlets.)

(So what’s this “golden age of horror” stuff?)