If you're the sort of person who can only cope with a tragedy like the Andrea Yates case via morbid, inappropriate humor, "Frailty" will be just your cup of arsenic. In this side-splitting black comedy set mostly in 1979, a Texan single father (Bill Paxton, who also directed) abruptly becomes convinced that his family is a key line of defense between good and evil. The devoted Mr. Meiks -- whose first name is not shared -- wakes his two tow-headed young 'uns one night to tell them that he has experienced a vision: An "angel" (actually, the winged statuette atop his bowling trophy) came to him in the darkness and charged their clan with ridding the world of demons who walk the Earth in human form.
Dad's perceived benefactor soon provides him with a "magical" axe and a list of people to kill. Oldest child Fenton (Matthew O'Leary) has reservations, but 9-year-old Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) is up for the crusade. He even submits his own, supposedly heaven-sent list of victims, which his old man recognizes right away as a roster of children who have dared to piss Adam off.
"God will send you your own list when you're older," Dad grins indulgently. And then they're off, abducting and murdering their prey with godly fervor. They even build a dungeon in their backyard as a family project. Make no mistake, this is boffo, funny-sick material worthy of John Waters.
So why isn't this review festooned with that elusive Holy Grail of movie criticism, the fabled five stars? Because the picture doesn't know it's a comedy. Believe it or not, Paxton and scriptwriter Brent Hanley expect us to register not laughter but skin-crawling terror as the Meikses mount a campaign of slaughter that, for the longest time, does no perceptible damage to their quality of life or personal-grooming habits. It's just a hobby they indulge on occasion, a lethal peccadillo in an otherwise wholesome existence. Imagine "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" reshot as an episode of "7th Heaven" and you'll have the idea.
The story is structured as a series of flashbacks, with an FBI agent (Powers Boothe) learning of the long-ago murders from a confessing citizen (Matthew McConaughey) who claims to be the grown-up Fenton. I say "claims" because "Frailty" throws out endless red herrings and ludicrous revelations that tie the narrative up in a hilarious knot of would-be shocks.
Its late-'70s time frame affords the movie its two moments of genuine cleverness. In one, the young Fenton and Adam debate an upcoming excursion to the movin' pitchers, trying to decide between "The Warriors" or a second viewing of "Meatballs." Later, in the midst of their spiritual rampage, the Meikses watch an episode of the religious claymation TV series "Davey and Goliath" in which Davey and his dad discuss free will and predestination. Unfortunately, the wisecracking pooch Goliath does not weigh in with any thoughts about axe murder. Oh, well; "Frailty" is still the best bad movie a twisted mind could hope for.