If we exempt the cult short film, Fish Heads, then Frailty marks the directorial debut of actor Bill Paxton. As debuts go, it’s not unimpressive, but neither is it really an unqualified success. As an essay in Southern Gothic horror, the film very nearly works for a time. There’s no denying that it’s creepy (though I’m still not sure if it’s the film itself or the fact that someone wanted to make it that’s actually creepy). Paxton evidences a masterfully atmospheric style early on, but it’s in the service of what is essentially a B-grade horror film masquerading as an art film — and a singularly unpleasant one at that. The film starts off strongly enough. Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) reports to comes to FBI agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) that his dead brother, Adam, was the serial killer known as “God’s Hands.” In order to convince Doyle of the reality of his claims, Fenton has to tell him the story of his family life — of how his father (Bill Paxton) received “divine guidance” to help rid the world of “demons” by kidnapping and killing an array of people on a list that was apparently presented to him by God. It’s grim and disturbing stuff, especially as the film traces the family descent into madness and murder. For a time, it seems to be a fairly strong psychological study of the perversion of religion and the use of that to warp children. On that level, it’s a film about child abuse in a very extreme and unusual form. Unfortunately — as often happens with independent films — Frailty becomes too impressed with its own cleverness and proceeds to lead the viewer from psychological drama straight into the realm of fantasticated horror — a genre that really can’t support the sheer nastiness of the spectacle of seeing young boys being forced to participate in ax murders, dismemberment and the piecemeal disposal of corpses in a rose garden. (As the gravedigger in Friday the 13th Part VI put it, “Some people have a strange idea of entertainment.”) Worse, once the film makes its turn from psychological thriller to horror film, it raises serious questions as to the intent of the filmmakers. By the end of the film, it’s difficult to know whether or not Paxton and first-time screenwriter Brent Hanley are appalled by the murders or endorsing them — an idea far more unsettling than anything in the film. When the film keeps to its psychological side, it passes muster as an effort to explore the potential damage of religious fanaticism. When it becomes a horror flick, Paxton and Hanley lose their grasp and Frailty quickly starts taking on the identities of earlier — and far better — genre works, notably Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs and David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone. What merit and personality of its own the movie had goes right out the window. Not surprisingly, the film also telegraphs its punches so that its every intended gasp-inducing surprise is obvious long before it happens and its “chilling” ending is such a cheesy cliche that you could spread it on crackers. The performances are generally quite good and the performance of Matthew O’Leary (Domestic Disturbance) as young Fenton is stunning, but the film so subverts its own point in order to be clever that what you’re left with is neither a satisfactory psychological thriller, nor an entertaining horror flick.