He was the guy who got his ass kicked in Streets Of Fire; he was the punk who got killed in The Terminator; he was the evil brother ‘Chet’ in Weird Science; he was the best thing about Titanic; he was the father trying to do the best for his family in A Simple Plan; he was weedy ‘pee in pants’ Simon, in True Lies; he was the toughened deputy in Tombstone; he was Jerry Lambert, the cop with jokes and a lucky golf ball in Predator 2; and he was the great Private W. Hudson, a man who unfortunately succumbed to the might of the aliens in the film Aliens. He is of course, Bill Paxton, an underrated actor who has shone in most films he’s appeared in, even though some of those films haven’t shone around him. Here, in his directorial debut, he proves that he has more strings to his bow than we imagined, and creates a wonderfully, dark horror film executed with assurance and vigour.
Fenton Meeks (Matthew McConaughey) turns up at FBI agent Wesley Doyle’s office, claiming to have information about a serial killer known as the God’s Hand. When Fenton tells Doyle (Powers Boothe) that he knows exactly who did it, and that that person is in fact his younger brother, the FBI agent doesn’t believe him. Doyle laughs, ‘…in a case like this, no one just walks through the door and tells you who the killer is, it just doesn’t happen that way.’ So Fenton begins to tell the story of exactly why his brother could commit such crimes of murder. Back in 1979, their happy existence – living with their father (Bill Paxton) in the quiet town of Thurman, Texas, is suddenly changed forever. In the middle of the night, their father enters the children’s room and tells them he has had a vision from God, instructing him that demon’s walk among us, and that he must destroy them.
Horror films of the nineties have struggled to get under audiences’ skin like those of old. Whether it be special effects and the reliance on those effects to instill fear in the audience that have failed, or the fact that scripts have become gradually poorer, or be it that audiences have just become desensitised to such films, the horror genre has declined. There have been two outstanding horror films made post-1990 that have worked in creating ultimate terror, and actually universally frightening audiences. The Candyman played upon the simplest of devices – say his name five times into a mirror and he will appear, his bloody hook burned into a bleeding stump. It worked because it didn’t rely on special effects and was backed up by a good script that worked on what all audiences could relate to and therefore be fearful of. The second film, The Blair Witch Project was not only one of the simplest executed films of all time, but it was genius in the way it was marketed in a close to the 21st Century culture. Breaking the boundaries of what was real and what was not real, the film documented the disappearance of three filmmakers using the very footage they filmed in their final days. Its cinema verité style made the unbelievable, very believable giving the audience something that was difficult to deny.
I mention these two films because Frailty slots in nicely behing them, as it is a superbly well made horror film, but it also truly gets the hairs raising up off the back of your neck. Bill Paxton directs as if he’s been doing it for years, but this is his first film as director. With cinematographer Bill Butler, they use the camera to its full potential in creating a sense of danger, of isolation, and of terror. Slow pans create brooding tension, while they use the dolly a lot to either put us right in the middle of the situation, or take us away from it, isolating us and putting us out in the lonely cold. Close-ups keep our attention focused, not letting us get a breather and keeping us in tune, listening intently to every word that is spoken.
Paxton also uses the score and sound effects well, never utilising them for cheap shocks. At times, the sound effects make you jump, but they have a narrative purpose and are used accordingly. The amount of bloodshed in this film is very little and this works much more effectively than if the film had become a gore fest. Paxton expertly uses off-screen sound so that we rely on our imagination to tell us what is happening. Almost like a good horror book, what we imagine in our own minds is much more frightening than what someone puts on screen for us to see.
Paxton takes Brent Hanley’s terrific script and paints it in a dark, gothic style, cutting minor reality check details. There’s not a wave of activity surrounding the disappearance of various people, and no one comes asking questions. The film is very much based on three major characters and we look upon this world, viewing only them. This is why they all have to be very well rounded individuals, and Hanley writes them excellently. Fenton, the kid who doesn’t believe his father’s preaching of demons, and talking to angels, struggles to come to terms with how his family has changed. The young Fenton, played by Matthew O’Leary is superbly cast and gives the kid a innocent feel, trapped in a situation he wants to get away from but in the same token, simply cannot get away from. Powers Boothe as the FBI agent, gives the film a wonderful fifties detective touch, with his careful wording and slow, meaningful deliberation.
The stand out though is Bill Paxton, who could have been forgiven if he was a little off par given the fact he’s directing too, but shows yet again, that he can pull off a man that doesn’t wear a military uniform who spouts off one-liners holding a powerful machine gun. Here, the brawn and physical power is still there but it is restrained. Paxton plays the man as the perfect father, but a father that is possessed by his religion and his beliefs. He can be ‘loving’ one minute, ‘killing’ the next. The actor gives the character credibility in that you never get the feeling that the perfect father and ‘demon slayer’ are two different people. What we see is the same man; a man doing what he believes is the right thing to do whether it be disciplining his children, or wielding an axe above a tied-up woman screaming for her life.
Frailty is a brilliant film, and while it isn’t perfect, it is one of the three best horror films I've seen post-1990. The film sports a terrific debut behind the camera by Bill Paxton as well as one of his best turns in front of it. Writer Brent Hanley has certainly made his presence known in Hollywood after this film, as has the young Matthew O’Leary. The film has given Paxton some food for thought with his future career, because if he can keep up to this quality of output, he’ll be a highly credited director in no time at all. It will be interesting to see what route he takes next though, whether he will continue with this genre or move on. One thing is for sure, however, he should rest in peace knowing that he has brought to the screen an exceptionally compelling film that will sit forever proudly in the horror genre.
The picture is presented in anamorphic enhanced 1.78:1. The quality of the visuals is very good given that the film is, in the majority, darkly lit. Blacks are perfect, and shadow detail very good. The colours are a little muted and soft throughout, but this is a factor of the cinematography rather than a disc defect. Therefore, while colour detail is saturated, it still looks excellent on the disc. The print is in pristine condition showing no signs of wear and tear.
The sound is equally impressive showing a fabulous dynamic range. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track shows some wonderful ambience, really putting the audience inside the film. There is good use of the surrounds, and a good level of bass. Dialogue is spread evenly across the front channels, with some tidy use of the right and left front speakers for life-like effect. The sound is clean and clear, with a crisp, sharp feel to it.
Screen Specific Commentary by Bill Paxton - This is an excellent commentary where the actor/director discusses the film mainly from an actors perspective, and talking about how his past experiences helped him direct the movie. Paxton is a good talker, and he never leaves long periods where nothing is said.
Screen Specific Commentary by producer David Kirschner, editor Arnold Glassman, and composer Brian Tyler - With the three of them together, what we get mainly is a relay of the information found on Paxton’s commentary. A little more would have been good from composer Tyler, as his score plays an intricate part in the films overall tone. It is interesting though, to hear what the producer has to say about Paxton as a director, and how the film eventually came about.
Screen Specific Commentary by Brent Hanley - This commentary is certainly worth listening to as Hanley discusses the film from a screenwriters perspective, including how the script evolved, the characters and the plot. Again, while some information is relayed from the other commentaries, each one just about holds its own.
The Making Of Frailty - This is a good featurette that stays clear of patting each other on the back. We get to see behind the scenes footage, as well as most of the crew discussing the film - how it came about, the casting and the execution.
Anatomy Of A Scene - This is an excellent documentary running twenty-five minutes in total, and looks at one particular part and how the filmmakers were able to use the different techniques of cinema to make the scenes work as they wanted them to work for the audience. All the major crew members contribute, as well as some of the actors and Bill Paxton.
Deleted Scenes, Photo Gallery and Storyboards - Four deleted scenes can be viewed with or without commentary by Bill Paxton. A photo gallery and storyboards are also presented on the DVD. The photo gallery shows production shots of the film, while the storyboards provided are for three separate scenes.
Theatrical Trailer - A good trailer that conveys the film’s tone and style quite well.
This film seems to have come from nowhere. I doubt that the producers, or Paxton himself could have fore saw this film being as good as it has turned out to be. Paxton shows that he is talented at the helm, and proves again what an acting talent he is. Assured direction throughout, he delivers a superb horror film that ranks up there with the best of them. Presented on a technically excellent DVD, with some very interesting and worthwhile extras, this is highly recommended.