The Devil’s Child (1997): Satan’s Little Helper

Just in time for its twenty-fifth anniversary, Dave dusts off a watchable little shocker penned by a scripter with an interesting history.

Back in the ‘90s, Pablo F. Fenjves, the Venezuelan born son of Holocaust survivors, was cranking out a steady stream of scripts for the small screen. His big break finally came in 2012 when Man on a Ledge, a screenplay he’d completed ten years prior, opened in three-thousand American cinemas. Granted, the film lit up the box office about as well as a wet match – but even if it had been theatrical gold, chances are that Fenjves would still primarily be known for his connection to O.J. Simpson.

On the night of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson’s murder, Fenjves was living a few doors down from her house, and was called as a witness for the prosecution to testify over the ‘plaintive wail’ of a dog which was eventually used to establish a time of death. If that wasn’t enough of a dip into the trial of the century for the scripter, he was later hired to ghostwrite Simpson’s quasi-confessional tome If I Did It, telling the shifty former football pro, “I thought you did it then, and I still think you did it now.”

Despite such an icky association, Fenjves does have an interesting array of teleplays to his credit. When the Dark Man Calls (1995), an adaptation of Stuart Kaminsky’s 1983 novel, is among the scribe’s best, as are the pair of Corbin Bernsen crime capers, Bloodhounds (1996) and Bloodhounds II (1996), that he created for the USA Network. THE DEVIL’S CHILD, meanwhile, straddles marvellous and mediocre with schizophrenic abandon. It centres around Nikki DeMarco (Kim Delaney), a magazine photographer who’s just got comfy in a trendy new pad thanks to a generous inheritance from her mother (a typically deranged Grace Zabriskie). Strange things begin to happen, though, and most of them seem to revolve around Alexander (Thomas Gibson), the mysterious new suitor who’s entered her life. As it turns out, Alexander is the devil, and when Nikki suffered a near fatal injury as a child, her mum made a pact with him to save her daughter’s life in exchange for Nikki eventually bearing his child.

Derivative to the max, The Devil’s Child takes a dollop of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and a splash of The Sentinel (1977) to create a hybrid of every possessed pregnancy picture and Satanic shocker that you’re ever likely to have seen. If you can accept that, Bobby Roth’s heavy-handed direction, and Fenjves’ occasionally clunk exposition (“I remember reading something creepy about that apartment you’ve just moved into,” notes Matthew Lillard’s enthusiastic assistant), then this reasonable bit of hokum succeeds as a throwaway gogglebox creeper with a few redeeming features.

The impressive ensemble is the main one. Firmly embedded in an Emmy Award-winning season of NYPD Blue, it might be a surprise seeing Delaney heading a movie like this, but with her new, real-life fiancé – TV mogul Alan Barnette – serving as The Devil’s Child‘s executive producer, you can maybe see why. With a diabolical glint in his eye, Gibson – then commencing a five season run on Dharma & Greg – is a handsome bit of casting, and Lillard is his usual manic self – but it’s the tasty cameos from Maya Rudolph, Paul Bartel, and an uncredited Tracey Walter that keep you hooked.

Naturally, the mainstream critics disagreed. Tom Shales of The Washington Post remarked how “anyone who sits through this movie will be very happy to see it end” [1], while Elaine Liner of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times ran with the tabloid-esque headline of “Devil’s Child Penned By O.J. Simpson Neighbor” before suggesting that any more movies like this could see Delaney’s career “going straight to hell” [2].

Airing on ABC at 8PM on Sunday 26th October, The Devil’s Child bypassed home media in America, but did good business in Europe. In the U.K. alone it appeared on video via High Fliers in time for Halloween ’98. A network premiere on Channel 5 followed the year after, and the film received numerous DVD releases from a wealth of bargain bin labels throughout the mid-’00s.

USA ● 1997 ● Horror, TVM ● 88mins

Kim Delaney, Colleen Flynn, Matthew Lillard, Gia Carides, Thomas Gibson ● Dir. Bobby Roth ● Wri. Pablo F. Fenjves, story by Laurence Minkoff

[1] Television, Tom Shales, The Washington Post, 25th October 1997.
[2] Devil’s Child Penned By O.J. Simpson Neighbor by Elaine Liner, The Corpus Christi Caller-Times, 26th October 1997.

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