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CHILD OF DARKNESS, CHILD OF LIGHT (1991)

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"Two virgin mothers, both so pure and good, one carrying the Seed of Hope, the other carrying the Seed of Destruction…."

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Director: Marina Sargenti

Starring: Anthony John Denison, Sydney Penny, Kristin Dattilo, Brad Davis, Sela Ward, Paxton Whitehead, Viveca Lindfors, Eric Christmas, Mark Tassoni

Screenplay: Brian Taggert, based upon the novel "Virgin" by James Patterson

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Synopsis: A priest from the Vatican, Father Rosetti (Paxton Whitehead), travels to the small town of Briscayne Falls, Pennsylvania, to investigate a report of an impending virgin birth. As he drives towards the town, his car is attacked by two black-clad motorcyclists, who smash his windows and try to force him off the road. The priest’s car, out of control, slams into the two attackers, forcing them over a drop at the side of the road. As the motorcycles hit the road beneath, they explode. Two ravens rise from the site of the explosion, landing on the bonnet of Father Rosetti’s car. The injured priest screams in terror…. Father Justin O’Carroll (Anthony John Denison) is summoned to the Vatican, where Father Rosetti, catatonic since his accident, is being cared for. Father Justin is told that, as Father Rosetti’s assistant, he will be taking over his work. Father Justin learns of the Miracle of Villa Fontaine when, seventy years earlier, the Blessed Virgin appeared and left a message that was not to be revealed until the final decade of the century. The message concerned the birth of a Divine Child. In Briscayne Falls, Father Justin meets fifteen-year-old Margaret Gallagher (Sydney Penny), who was removed from her school after her condition led to her being ridiculed and abused by her fellow students. Margaret insists that, despite her pregnancy, she is a virgin. While writing his first report to the Vatican, the priest sees a mysterious man in black outside his bedroom window…. The next day, Father Justin talks to Margaret’s doctor, Dr Tuchner (Brad Davis), who gives his opinion that the girl has never been touched in any way. Meanwhile, Margaret is cornered by a group of teenagers. One boy, Michael Sheedy (Mark Tassoni), announces that he is the father of Margaret’s baby, and forces a kiss on her. When he releases her, he is bleeding from one eye. Obscene graffiti is found on the doors of Margaret’s school. Father Justin talks to Michael Sheedy’s friends, who were responsible. They admit to spreading rumours about Margaret, but insist they know nothing about the child’s real father. Father Justin learns that Michael has lost his eye. Margaret goes to church to pray. As she kneels, a raven appears on the pew behind her. Margaret is gripped with pain and collapses. As she loses consciousness, she sees a man in black standing over her. Waking in the hospital, Margaret tells of her experience, and confides that she had a terrifying vision of people dying. Dr Tuchner shows Father Justin a newspaper headline concerning an epidemic of Polio-Venice that is sweeping the country. Father Justin returns to the Vatican, and reports that he believes that Margaret is truly a virgin. He then learns that another girl claiming a virgin pregnancy, Kathleen Beavier (Kristin Dattilo), has been located in Boston. The second part of the Blessed Virgin’s message is then revealed: that two children will be born at the same time, one the Child of God, the other of Satan. But – which is which?

Comments: It’s hard to understand how a movie with a plot involving the re-birth of Christ, the simultaneous birth of the Anti-Christ, and the possible apocalyptic consequences of these events for humankind can be so---well, dull. On the surface, Child Of Darkness, Child Of Light would seem to have a reasonable amount going for it, not least its ever-popular central plot thread of a Vatican-based investigation of an alleged miracle. (We horror film watchers tend to think we know a lot about Catholic ritual and procedure – I wonder how much of our "knowledge" is accurate?) Ultimately, however, this proves to be the basis of most of the film’s shortcomings. The story is structured as a mystery rather than a thriller, with the disclosure of which of the two girls is carrying God’s Child, and which Satan’s, put off for as long as possible. Unfortunately, so determined is the film not to tip its hand one way or the other that everything that happens in it has to happen twice. Both Margaret Gallagher and Kathleen Beavier are fifteen, both are brown-eyed brunettes, and both are Catholic. Both are supported by their families, both have suffered abuse at the hands of their contemporaries, and both have a boy claiming falsely to be the father of their child, who suffers a physical punishment of seemingly unearthly origin as a consequence. Both girls experience exactly the same supernatural phenomena, and both undergo a visitation by the mysterious Man In Black (no, not that "Man In Black"!). Most peculiar of all, both girls have someone they know fall to their death off the roof of their house. What this means, in story terms, is that by the end of Justin O’Carroll’s investigation into Margaret Gallagher’s pregnancy, we’ve seen pretty much everything the film has to offer – and then have to sit through it all over again with respect to Kathleen Beavier. This repetition gives the viewer far too much time to contemplate the film’s various plot-holes and contrivances. Perhaps the most damaging of these is the unmasking of the "Man In Black" who turns out, anticlimactically, to be an ordinary person – which makes his ability to appear wherever the plot needs him to be somewhat problematical. (His being on the spot to hear one character’s confession, something that solves one of the film’s mysteries, is entirely unbelievable.) In fairness to Child Of Darkness, Child Of Light, however, it does pick up somewhat during the final section of the story, with a few unexpected twists and, best of all, the revelation that this time around, the Child of God is (wait for it!) a girl! YES!!!! (Satan has a boy – nyah, nyah!) Unfortunately, this rather courageous piece of theological reinterpretation is completely undercut during the film’s final scene when we discover that, despite Her mother’s colouring, the Child in question is a blue-eyed blonde. (Just couldn’t resist that particular stereotype, could they? Sigh….)

I’ve classified Child Of Darkness, Child Of Light as a horror movie, but that isn’t altogether an accurate description. Despite the potential for mayhem inherent in the story, events remain low-key almost to the point of boredom. In fact, most of the film’s real events are much more distressing than its supernatural ones. Posing any kind of threat to a pregnant girl is a sure-fire way of provoking an audience reaction, and the scene in which Margaret Gallagher is bailed up and tormented by a group of her former "friends" is sincerely painful to watch. We do not witness Kathleen’s parallel humiliation, but in time we learn that the boy who is claiming to be the father of her baby in fact tried to rape her – but, as Kathleen finally explains, "couldn’t do it". So mortified by his "failure" is the boy that he has taken to telling anyone who will listen that he and Kathleen had consensual sex. This campaign of lies reaches its nadir when he tells a nun who has become part of the Church’s investigation that, during the act, Kathleen "lay there like a dead fish". The cumulative effect of these scenes is sufficiently distasteful for the concurrent supernatural happenings to seem positively pedestrian by comparison. Child Of Darkness, Child Of Light relies far too much on ominous background music to get its points across (you know the kind I mean – organ notes, lots of "ahh-ahh-ahh" chanting). A bigger problem is the film-makers’ apparent belief that ravens are, of themselves, frightening. Wherever the two girls go, these birds follow, sending various characters into paroxysms of terror. This is, to say the least, rather difficult to swallow. (By halfway through the film, I was reduced to amusing myself by wiggling my fingers and going, "Ooh, booga-booga-booga!" whenever one of these avian messengers of doom appeared – which was often.) The film’s single greatest flaw, however, is that no real context is ever given for the story’s events. We are told, at various times, that the girls’ pregnancies are synchronous with catastrophic events taking place all over the world. Brief television clips and newspaper headlines are used to keep an awareness of these happenings running through the film. And yet somehow they never have the necessary impact. Even when such events strike close to our central characters – John Jordan, Kathleen’s supposed lover, is stricken with the Polio-Venice virus – the effect is strangely muted. (Jordan’s fate is even, in a sense, disappointing. Given the way he clutches his groin after collapsing, I’d imagined a much more poetic piece of justice.) The desired sense of impending doom just never eventuates. In this respect – and here’s something I never thought I’d say! – The Seventh Sign is a far superior film. By showing the audience the disasters happening all over the world, it created an atmosphere of genuine dread. Granted, there’s no way that the budget of Child Of Darkness, Child Of Light would have allowed for the kind of images of mass destruction that open The Seventh Sign, but nevertheless, a little more time and effort spent on background and meaning would have resulted in a much stronger film.

On a more positive note, the film does benefit from the performances of Sydney Penny as Margaret and Kristin Dattilo as Kathleen (although the latter, through no fault of her own, of course, bears a resemblance to Jennifer Love Hewitt that becomes increasingly unnerving). Both girls acquit themselves quite well in difficult roles, being believably "innocent" yet never sanctimonious; bewildered and frightened by what is happening to them, yet strong enough in their faith to accept it. We like these girls; we sympathise with them; and this makes the way the film’s final scenes play out deeply discomforting. The two, as you would expect, go into labour almost simultaneously. One gives birth to a girl, the Daughter of God; the other, to her utter horror, to Satan’s child (we don’t see it, but she does – and like Rosemary Woodhouse’s baby before it, it has its father’s eyes). And then, after we’ve lived and suffered with these girls for over an hour and a half, the film just abandons them. After one final battle between the Church and the minions of Satan, we cut to one of those "10 Years Later" codas, leaving the fates of the two girls entirely unresolved. What happens to the pair of them? How do they adjust to their fates? How does the girl who knows she’s had Satan’s child cope? Does she cope? We never know. Once the two of them have served their purpose they are simply discarded. The abruptness, even cruelty, of this completely undercuts the film’s ending, which is supposed to have a big shock in it, but doesn’t for anyone who’s watched a fair number of horror films. (Of more interest is the revelation that the Daughter of God gets into the miracle business a lot earlier than her predecessor did.) After all this, it is fitting that the two girls are easily the most memorable aspect of the film. None of the other performances make much of an impression, although a young Sela Ward gets to embarrass herself as a nun who succumbs to "the temptations of the flesh" (this film was made-for-TV, so don’t get your hopes up). The only other notable thing about Child Of Darkness, Child Of Light is that it contains the blink-and-you’ll-miss-him film debut of a twenty-three year old Brendan Fraser.