Hilary Swank has had one of the more unusual careers in Hollywood. After winning an Oscar for Boys Don’t Cry, she didn’t seem to know what to do with herself. The actress appeared in misfires like The Affair of the Necklace or silly movies that didn’t exactly require a lot of genuine acting (The Core). Then she landed the lead role in Million Dollar Baby, won a second Oscar, and proceeded to make strange choices again. You would think a two-time Oscar winner would have her choice of top scripts, but Swank allowed herself to be badly miscast in Brian DePalma’s Black Dahlia, made the umpteenth inspirational drama about a white teacher motivating a classroom full of inner city students (Freedom Writers), and now appears in a low-rent horror flick called The Reaping.
This time around, Swank plays Katherine Winter, a former Christian missionary who stopped believing in God when her husband and daughter were murdered. She now teaches at Louisiana State University and spends her free time debunking “miracles” by providing scientific explanations for them. After class one afternoon, Katherine receives a phone call from an old friend, Father Costigan (Stephen Rea). He’s noticed that all his pictures of her have spontaneously started burning up, and he’s concerned that she might be I.G.D. – In Grave Danger. (Movie priests are always marvelously in tune with this kind of thing.)
Around this same time, Katherine is visited by a gentleman named Doug (David Morrissey), who hales from a backwater bayou town. The river there has inexplicably turned to blood, and the townsfolk are blaming a little girl, Loren McConnell (Bridge to Terebithia’s AnnaSophia Robb) for unleashing a Biblical plague. Doug wants Katherine to investigate, which she reluctantly agrees to do. Rumors of a satanic cult operating in the area seem far-fetched until other plagues start occurring, in the same order that they appeared in the Bible. The key to the mystery seems to rest with Loren. Is she, in fact, a demon child, or is there some other explanation for the strange goings-on?
It seems like every few years, we get one of these Southern gothic horror movies, and they all have more or less the same elements. There’s a creepy old plantation building, an eerie swamp, and the suggestion of voodoo (in this case, replaced by devil worship, but same thing overall). There’s even the obligatory scene where the heroine investigates a strange noise, only to discover an ancient Victrola playing a scratchy old blues record that keeps skipping, turning a few innocent notes into an eerie refrain. (Apparently, people in the Deep South don’t buy CD players.) All these clichés were delivered to us just a few years ago in the Kate Hudson thriller The Skeleton Key, and now here they are again. Also, the whole concept of a hero/heroine who discovers his/her lost faith in the face of paranormal activity has been done to death. Signs is just one other example that pops to mind, and I’ll mention another in a moment.
Although predictable in many ways, The Reaping is also peculiar because it goes completely against the grain as you experience it. The first half hour is fairly serious, as it tries to explore the idea of the Biblical plagues occurring in present day. As the plot marches forward – and the plagues intensify – the film becomes increasingly ludicrous. The story’s theology quickly erodes, and the plagues turn into little more than excuses to bombard the audience with special effects and mayhem. Normally, I criticize movies for starting off with purpose and ending up mired in silliness. In this case, though, the early scenes weren’t working for me; they were curiously flat and lacked real conviction. Therefore, The Reaping worked completely in reverse. The sillier it got, the more fun I had.
This is not to say that the film is good, or even recommendable. It’s really not. What I’m saying is that, for better or worse, The Reaping is never boring. How can it be? It has ten plagues to work through. There are rivers of blood, frogs raining from the sky, people developing hideous boils, and even a swarm of locusts (the film’s main set piece and, presumably, it’s primary reason for existence). Enough goes on here that my attention was held throughout, even as I realized that the plot was going completely off the rails.
I am reminded of another recent thriller, the Sandra Bullock vehicle Premonition. Both are female-driven stories whose central characters have lost their faith. Both have supernatural occurrences and mysteries that the heroine must figure out. Both have priests who show up to warn the heroine at a crucial moment in time. And both end with a plot twist that leaves one with more questions than answers. Yet another thing they have in common: both movies are pretty bad. The difference is that Premonition was dour and self-serious, which made watching it a chore. The Reaping, on the other hand, achieves a level of preposterousness that is somewhat entertaining for all the wrong reasons. This might have been a provocative tale about religious values in contemporary society; instead, it’s nothing more than schlock. I would have greatly preferred the former, but at least the schlock kept me moderately amused.
( out of four)
Although I didn’t quite recommend The Reaping when it played theatrically, it is the kind of movie that may be worth catching on DVD if you’re looking for an evening of unrepentantly silly amusement, or if you’re a fan of Hilary Swank and want to see her at work. Sweetening the deal are some pretty interesting DVD bonus features.
The best of them is “Science of the Ten Plagues,” a mini-documentary that has renowned experts providing possible scientific explanations for the Biblical plagues. They use laymen’s language in doing this, so it’s easy to follow what’s being said. It’s also fascinating to consider how rivers of blood and frogs falling from the sky could naturally occur. I found this feature incredibly enlightening – a good example of how a DVD can expand on the subject matter of a film.
The other features are more standard, but still worthwhile. “The Characters” is, as the title suggests, a promo segment in which the cast members discuss the characters they play and how they approached their roles. “A Place Called Haven” explores New Orleans, where filming of The Reaping was interrupted by Hurricane Katrina. It’s a touching feature, especially as one of the producers explains that they continued to film in the aftermath as a way to keep employing local crew members. Finally, there is “The Reaping: The Seventh Plague” – a short segment that goes behind the scenes of the locus attack. This feature is most noteworthy for a section where co-star Idris Elba dares a crew member to put one of the live insects in his mouth, and the guy complies. Not for those who are squeamish about bugs.
If you tinker with your remote control, you can also unlock an Easter Egg in which actress AnnaSophia Robb reads a horror story she was inspired to write while working on the movie. Her tale will seem kind of pedestrian to adults, but you have to admire her desire to be creative at such a young age.
The Reaping hits standard DVD on a disc that contains the widescreen version on one side and the full-screen version on the other. (Need I say that widescreen is the only way to go?) If you own a high-definition player, you won’t need to worry about the so-called “format wars” on this one; it’s being released in both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray formats, which is good news for high-definition fans.
The Reaping is rated R for violence, disturbing images and some sexuality. The running time is 1 hour and 38 minutes.
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