[THE USA WORLD PREMIERE MOVIE PROJECT] CHILD OF DARKNESS, CHILD OF LIGHT (1990)

Join us for our year-long celebration of the USA World Premiere Movie in conjunction with Made-for-TV Mayhem! Check out out previous entries on THE FORGOTTEN here, MURDER BY NIGHT here, THE TICKET here, SNOW KILL here, DEADLY GAME here, ACCIDENTAL MEETING here, HITLER’S DAUGHTER here, ARE YOU LONESOME TONIGHT? here, AS GOOD AS DEAD here and MURDER ON SHADOW MOUNTAIN here, TRUCKS here, OUR MOTHER’S MURDER here , THE HOLLYWOOD DETECTIVE here, ULTIMATE DECEPTION here, NIGHTMARE ON THE 13TH FLOOR here and WRITER’S BLOCK here, THE CHIPPENDALES MURDER here, RUBDOWN here, THE SUBSTITUTE here and THE CHINA LAKE MURDERS here, DIAMOND FLEECE here, RUNNING AGAINST TIME here, MY STEPSON, MY LOVER here and THE HAUNTING OF SEACLIFF INN here!, MURDER 101 here, TAINTED BLOOD here, BURIED ALIVE here, PSYCHIC here, SCANDALOUS ME: THE JACQUELINE SUSANN STORY here, INTO THE BADLANDS here, LIES OF THE TWINS here and CABIN BY THE LAKE here, VOYAGE here, RETURN TO CABIN BY THE LAKE here, WHITE LIE here and SINS OF THE MIND here, DUPLICATES here and MATERNAL INSTINCTS here, DEAD HUSBANDS here and THE HAUNTING OF SARAH HARDY here!

What would the world of the made-for-TV movie be without the baby-focused thriller? It’s not just horror pics like the classic THE STRANGER WITHIN, the conception and control of babies are the focus of a good percentage of the content on the Lifetime Movie Network (or “The Lemon” for those in the know) with titles like BABY SNATCHER tangling up the airwaves. Heck, just this year you can look what happened to ROSEMARY’S BABY!

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The USA Network would be remiss as a TV-movie powerhouse if it didn’t have its own baby-themed horror pic, and that pic is CHILD OF DARKNESS, CHILD OF LIGHT, a religion-themed tale of that gives us two mystical babies for the price of one! The only problem is that one of them is the Antichrist sure to bring Armageddon, and the other is a child of God sure to bring, er, presumably the end of Armageddon. (I’ve never been too sure as to how it’s supposed to work and why it’s supposed to be a good thing.) But which baby is which? Can the Catholic Church figure it out in time? Will one of them turn out to be one of the BABY GENIUSES?

CHILD OF DARKNESS, CHILD OF LIGHT comes with a curious genre film pedigree. Director Marina Sargenti had helmed the franchise-inspiring MIRROR MIRROR, a film that launched Rainbow Harvest to low-level horror fame with her combination of Winona Ryder-in-BEETLEJUICE gothness and curious name. Screenwriter and co-producer Brian Taggert had a long history of genre films on his resume, including VISITING HOURS and OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN and two additional made-for-TV films aired the same year as CHILD – the Fox OMEN IV: THE AWAKENING (about a devilish child) and the remake of WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (about a child becoming a devilish adult). But the oddest name in the credits is that of the writer of the book that CHILD was based upon – James Patterson, patron saint of bestseller lists, ghost writers and airport bookstores everywhere.

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CHILD is based on Patterson’s novel “Virgin,” first published in 1980 and long before he became the name most represented by our nation’s subway readers. “Virgin,” in fact, would be the last book Patterson would publish for six years – a hell of a difference from 2013, when 14 books were churned out with Patterson’s moniker on them. (Some of them even may contain text that he personally supervised!) With bibliomnipresence comes film adaption, and Patterson has since become a standby source for of slapdash cinematic thrillers (witness KISS THE GIRLS, ALEX CROSS and the mega-hit TV series that lasted forever “Women’s Murder Club”), but CHILD was the first time the future lord of the bargain bins found his work adapted for the screen.

Like every good made-for-TV movie, CHILD opens with a bang as a priest (Paxton Whitehead) driving along a quiet country road is attacked by a motorcycle gang, leading to lots of explosions. Crows troll the wreckage ominously. The priest screams. Church bells ring. Armageddon is afoot!

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Our victim, Father Rosetti, survives, but he’s in a state of catatonia and is housed at the Vatican. His former assistant, Father Justin O’Carroll (a sleepwalking Tony Denison), continues his work and investigates a prophecy from 70 years ago “to be opened at the beginning of the last decade of this century” about a virgin birth. The potential mother is a teenage Catholic school girl in Pennsylvania, and Justin goes in despite warnings that he’s about to be immersed in darkness. (Presumably, this means Satan and not just being in Catholic school.)

Margaret (Sydney Penny) sticks to her story about her immaculate conception, even after Justin mentions how embarrassing the situation would be for the church. He gets verification of Margaret’s virginity from friendly agnostic Dr. Phinney (Brad Davis) who assures him that she’s never even don’e any bean-flipping. Meanwhile, Margaret herself gets harassed by a gang of street toughs, and the leader finds his eyes bleeding before they can get much in the way of action. Supernaturalness is afoot, especially when a mysterious stranger shows up and Margaret passes out in church!

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Margaret’s “untouched” status having been verified, O’Carroll is given the chance to open another prophecy, this one talking about a second virgin, and how one virgin birth will be good and one will be evil, so it’s off to Boston to do more virginvestigatin’! Here, he’s teamed with Sister Anne (Sela Ward), a New York nun with a knack for dealing with troubled girls. The teen in trouble this time is Kathleen (Kristin Dattilo), a young artist whose family maid (Viveca Lindfors) is suspicious of the supernatural goings-on.

CHILD OF DARKNESS starts to get messier from there, as some characters succumb to Satan’s influence and others are re-introduced. The investigations soon kick into high gear as a decision as to which baby is good and which is evil has to be reached – though, if the Antichrist being born was in a prophecy, why would the church want to stop it? Wouldn’t they just let it happen like it’s supposed to? (I don’t understand this religious stuff. My apologies.) It all ends with a completely ridiculous epilogue that, for the sake of leaving such goofiness a pleasant surprise, I won’t go into here.

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While CHILD is a perfectly entertaining film, it often feels like a larger-scope project that got cut down due to multiple revisions and budget restrictions. O’Carroll is supposed to be a skeptic, but he believes in random, vague, decades-old prophecies, and Denison’s performance feels more like a mob heavy than an investigative priest. Dr. Phinney serves as the actual skeptic of the film, and Davis does a fine job even when he seems more like a mouthpiece for criticism against the bizarre hoops of logic of the church than an actual character. Ward makes for a fine, caring-yet-potentially-threatening nun, so much that you’d wish she had a lot more screen time than she actually does. There’s also a plenty of sequences of priests and nuns talking about vague Catholic stuff and occasional in-fighting, most of which just serves to kill time until spooky stuff happens.

And there is certainly spooky stuff happening, and Sargenti does a fine job with the moments that are supposed to be genuinely eerie, save for the unsalvageable finale. Doors close suddenly, ethereal creepy music plays, crows fly around everywhere and anyone who could cause harm to the babies quickly finds their blood on the wrong side of their body. Fires appear in mirrors. Dogs get violent. There’s an eerie scene involving a hedge maze that isn’t really as effective as, say, THE SHINING because the hedges are only about two feet tall. On a worldwide from, we get glimpses of a polio outbreak and a plague of locusts. “Would you define this as an apocalypse?” asks a news reporter. We’re all doomed! On a very small level.

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CHILD OF DARKNESS, CHILD OF LIGHT sometimes feels like a mini-series awkwardly shoved into an 85-minute running time, with half-developed storylines that end before they get much of a chance to begin, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not an enjoyable ride. In fact, CHILD fits in less with other made-for-TV horror pics and more like a supernatural version of HITLER’S DAUGHTER, with spooky incidents and satanic possession filling in place of gun standoffs and flashbacks to the fall of the Third Reich. The sum of the parts may not really add up to much, but the parts themselves are a good time.

Oh, and blink and you’ll miss Brendan Fraser as a friend of Kathleen’s would-be beau. Seriously, blink at the wrong moment and you will actually miss him. Here’s a screenshot that captures about half of his actual screen time:

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Brendan Fraser!

— PAUL FREITAG-FEY.

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