Paste’s ABCs of Horror is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in last year’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019. With some heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?
Frailty is a film you’ll often see making appearances on lists of “underrated” horror movies of the 2000s, to the point that one might question how underrated something can really be if hundreds of people are all proclaiming it to be so, but we can’t help but agree it’s a film that deserves to be better known. Despite being actor Bill Paxton’s directorial debut—he went on to direct only one other film, 2005’s The Greatest Game Ever Played—Frailty is clearly a movie of modest means. Where it thrives is in the uncertainty of its narrative, and its unique ability to capture the true terror of childhood, which is an almost total lack of agency in comparison with the adults who surround you. If you’re a sane child, surrounded by insane elders, what hope is there for you? Where can you possibly turn?
Frailty revolves around the relationship between a pair of young brothers and their nameless father, as played by Paxton with an air of constant, sweaty rapture. With their mother not in the picture, one immediately begins to wonder what kind of effect this has had on Dad … even before he wakes his sons up in the middle of the night to tell them he’s been visited by an angel, and given instructions to kill. Paxton is a marvel in this film, at once empathetic toward his fellow man and dehumanizing toward those he believes to be disguised demons in human clothing. There’s no sign of actual “malice” in him, per se—he’s not out there killing people because that’s what he wants to be doing, nor taking any pleasure in the task. Instead, he’s carrying out this grim mission because he firmly believes he’s been granted a holy quest.
How do you even begin to respond to that, as a 9-year-old child? Frailty is one of the truest distillations of the terror that children can feel but rarely articulate, and specifically the moment of childhood when you first grapple with the realization that your parents might not only be fallible, but delusional or wicked. It’s the horror of the realization that there’s next to nothing you can do about the mental state of someone who is meant to be your guardian and protector, and the blooming knowledge that anything you try to do about it will likely be met with intense reprisals and punishment. Who’s going to take the word of a small boy over his father, in some small town in the late 1970s? How can you expect a kid to grapple with this weight of responsibility? And what about the younger brother, being groomed as a killer and blindly accepting everything his father has to say about God, demons, angels and their mission to kill?
Of course, a worse horror still is the possibility that Dad hasn’t gone crazy, as this suggests the existence of the kind of God who commands his subjects to cruelly murder one another at a whim. What’s the better option? That your father’s sanity is quickly eroding? Or that we live in a universe in which a psychopathic supreme being arbitrarily decides to slaughter people, using your father as a divine assassin with a hit list of disguised demons? At least the former option involves only one mentally deranged individual, rather than a deranged deity.
Looking back on Frailty almost 20 years later, it forms a pretty clear bridge to modern psychological horror films about children and their fathers, from the terrified family dealing with a raving Michael Shannon in Take Shelter, to Charlie Plummer investigating his serial killer father in The Clovehitch Killer. Those films dismiss the religious mysticism that makes Frailty distinct, but all feel subtly influenced by the tug-of-war seen here between love, fear, fealty and responsibility.
The film is, if nothing else, a testament to the tremendous talent we lost in Bill Paxton, a performer who could likely have gone on to a rich directorial career. As a storyteller, he had a knack for imbuing seemingly powerful characters with deep vulnerabilities, leading them to fittingly human pitfalls. If only we could have seen him explore those talents a bit more fully, we might have been rewarded with some great films.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.