Today is Halloween and to celebrate the occasion, I thought it only appropriate that I have a look back at what I consider to be one of the most underrated horror films of the past decade. It’s no secret that I’m more of an old-school horror guy who sometimes becomes disillusioned with the state of the genre today. Hollywood often relies too heavily on remakes, sequels or watered-down PG-13 horror flicks that are meant to draw in a younger audience, and I think one of the major problems with the genre is that most of today’s efforts are just too safe. Some of the most groundbreaking horror films of all time, such as Night of the Living Dead, The Last House on the Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, became the classics that they are because they took a lot of chances. It’s pretty rare these days for a mainstream Hollywood horror film to take any major risks, but when one actually does that, I’m usually quick to champion it. Such was the case with the 2002 psychological thriller, Frailty, which told a very unconventional story that drew some good reviews from critics (including a four-star review from Roger Ebert) and praise from horror fans. Unfortunately, that praise didn’t translate into box office dollars, so Frailty has kind of sunk into obscurity during the last decade and remains underrated. However, that does not change the fact that this is an uncommonly intelligent and daring horror film that covers some pretty harrowing material with uncomfortable implications.
As Frailty opens, the Dallas branch of the FBI is pursuing a serial murderer called the “God’s Hand Killer”. One night, the agent in charge of the case, Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe), is surprised to be visited in his office by a man named Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey), who claims he knows who the killer is and where all the victims are buried. Through a series of flashbacks, the story keeps jumping back to 1979 to show young Fenton (Matt O’Leary) as a child, living with his younger brother, Adam (Jeremy Sumpter), and being raised by their widower Dad (Bill Paxton) in a small Texas town. Dad (whose real first name is never revealed) is established as an honest, hard-working mechanic and a very good father who loves his sons a lot, but one night, something suddenly changes about him. Dad tells his boys that he was visited by an angel and that God has given him the task of destroying some demons who are apparently disguised as normal, everyday people. Dad soon winds up kidnapping these people and chopping them up with his trusty axe, “Otis”, and the children are forced to witness their father’s horrifying transformation from a decent, God-fearing man into a serial killer. Dad justifies his actions by telling his sons that they are doing God’s work, and Adam actually believes him. Fenton, however, remains skeptical and thinks that his father is nothing more than an insane murderer. When Fenton refuses to participate in the killings, Dad begins to believe that his own son might be a demon and subjects him to such horrible punishments as being locked in a cellar without food until he has a vision of God.
Frailty is loosely based on the case of serial killer Joseph Kallinger, who took his 13-year old son along with him for his murders and claimed that God told him to do it. Indeed, numerous people have committed murder and claimed that God or Satan told them to do it, but one of the most interesting things about Frailty is that there’s no doubt that Dad Meiks believes 100 % in what he’s doing. This marked the feature film directorial debut of Bill Paxton and he gets a lot of mileage out of casting himself in the role of Dad. Throughout his career, Paxton has mostly played likable heroes or comedic relief roles and has only gotten the chance to play a villain (such as his turn as a vampire in Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark) on rare occasions. It’s often been said that the most intriguing villains are not those who do bad things just for the sake of being bad, but those who genuinely believe what they’re doing is right. I put Dad Meiks on my recent “Ten Underrated Horror Movie Villains” list because his complete sincerity about what he’s doing is what makes him so chilling. On the surface, Dad Meiks resembles your typically likable Bill Paxton character and you know he would probably never hurt a living soul unless he actually believed that God had entrusted him with this task. Even when Dad is reaping horrible abuse upon Fenton, you know he still genuinely loves his son and is only doing it because he thinks it’s for the greater good. In a way, Paxton’s work here resembles his performance in Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan as an otherwise decent man who somehow finds himself capable of committing murder. If Dad had been played by an another actor who was normally typecast in the role of psychotic villains, Frailty probably would have lost a lot of its edge, but because Paxton has cast himself against type, Dad Meiks is an incredibly unsettling character.
In addition, Paxton also gets some mileage out of casting Matthew McConaughey in an atypical role for him, as a psychologically tormented man who is haunted by the events of his childhood, but also seems to be concealing something more sinister. The script for Frailty was written by Brent Hanley, which contains an uncommonly high level of psychological depth and intelligence for a horror film. Hanley pulls the rug out from underneath the audience with some surprise twists in the last act, and while some people have criticized these twists, I think they work quite well and help lend the film to repeat viewings. Amusingly enough, even though Hanley’s script does have some plot holes, the nature of the story actually allows you to write them off with the explanation that they’re simply “God’s will”. Sadly, Brent Hanley’s only other writing credit is for the John Landis-directed Masters of Horror episode, “Family”, and it’s a shame no other work from him has been produced. It’s also a shame that Bill Paxton has never directed another horror film, as his only other directorial effort since then has been the golf drama, The Greatest Game Ever Played. Paxton shows great skill as a genre filmmaker and even though Frailty isn’t overly gory, it is pretty creepy and disturbing and covers material that many established directors would not want to touch. Like I said earlier, it’s unfortunate that Frailty was not a huge success at the box office because not many horror films like it have been released since then. Unlike most of the horror flicks that are churned out by Hollywood today, Frailty takes a lot of chances and probably won’t appeal to every viewer. It may be the most underappreciated horror film of the decade, but fans of the genre who’ve never seen it and complain that they don’t make good horror movies any more definitely need to check it out.