Like a lot of movie characters these days, the creepy little kid at the center of this woefully misnamed horror flick sees dead people. As is their habit, the dead in this film generally materialize behind panes of frosted glass -- maniacally laughing on the outside, hysterically screaming on the inside -- although they also crop up in bathtubs, closets and nightmares that look as if they should come with a throbbing beat and lots of leather.
Written by Mark Bomback and directed by Nick Hamm, "Godsend" takes its sluggish time to get to its premise. When the story opens, Paul Duncan (Greg Kinnear), a high school biology teacher, and his wife, a coltish photographer named Jessie (a tamped-down Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), are celebrating the birthday of their only son, Adam (Cameron Bright). In yet another of those exploitative scenes of child death, of which the movies have grown increasingly fond, Adam is killed, sending his parents into a vortex of mourning. Robert De Niro subsequently materializes as the mysterious Dr. Wells and begins whispering about clones. One foolish decision leads to another and the unsettling sight of De Niro in a hospital gown fussing between Romijn-Stamos' legs. Thereafter a baby appears, followed by a mess of trouble.
"Godsend" reveals an almost depraved indifference to logic, but it hides its craziness with the aplomb of the expensively medicated. For the most part, it's Kinnear who fools you into thinking you're watching a real movie. A consistently underused and often underrated actor, Kinnear gives one of those sympathetic performances that prevent you from believing the worst about a movie despite the sounding alarms. Even after Paul hands over his family's future to Dr. Wells -- leaving home, job and friends to live off the grid with Jessie and their strangely familiar kid -- Kinnear keeps the character in your tender mercies. He also succeeds in keeping a straight face no matter how far-fetched the setup or how wretched De Niro's faltering, arrhythmic line readings.
Either an act of subversion or a sign of irredeemable corruption, De Niro's delivery is fairly frightening, but "Godsend" earns most of its shivers with crashing edits and loud abrupt noises. If you're easily scared by the sound of a slamming door, this is the movie for you. Hamm, who last directed the horror movie "The Hole," keeps the lights low and the surfaces shiny, giving the film a generic sleekness. The glossiness of the photography does little to obscure the film's junkyard approach to storytelling, however, which finds scientific hocus-pocus mixed in with low-tech scares, supernatural shocks and visual allusions to such dependable touchstones as "Village of the Damned" and "The Omen." Taken together none of this makes a whit of sense, but in all likelihood it will make for a very fine DVD rental one day soon.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for violence including frightening images, a scene of sexuality and some thematic material.
Times guidelines: Scene featuring a child's death; bloody specters; mild adult sexuality; language.
Gregg Kinnear...Paul Duncan
Rebecca Romijn-Stamos...Jessie Duncan
Robert De Niro...Dr. Richard Wells
Cameron Bright...Adam Duncan
A Lions Gate Films/Artists Production Group production in association with 2929 Entertainment, released by Lions Gate. Director Nick Hamm. Writer Mark Bomback. Producers Cathy Schulman, Sean O'Keefe, Marc Butan. Director of photography Kramer Morgenthau. Editors Steve Mirkovich, Niven Howie. Music Brian Tyler. Production designer Doug Kraner. Costume designer Suzanne McCabe. Casting Sarah Halley Finn, Randi Hiller, Stephanie Gorin. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
In general release.