|HD DVD Mystery-Suspense|
|Written by Darren Gross|
|Tuesday, 01 January 2008|
College professor Katherine Winter (Hilary Swank) is a well-regarded debunker of presumed “miracles.” On a research expedition in Chile she delves into the local miracle of an aged corpse’s extreme preservation, and finds that those who have come to worship and seek guidance at the tomb are subject to hallucinogenic visions. Exploring the area around the tomb, Winter and colleague Ben (Idris Elba) uncover the cause: illegal subterranean dumping of toxic waste, which is responsible for all the presumed phenomena.
Back at the university, Winter is approached by Doug Blackwell (David Morrissey), a resident of the isolated town of Haven, Louisiana, who tries to elicit her help in investigating a local phenomenon that has the residents spooked. The local river has seemingly turned to blood, and as that event is reminiscent of the Ten Plagues of Egypt in the Bible, it naturally has caused great upset in the closed-off, God-fearing community. Winter tries to beg off the task, but when Blackwell tells her the town is blaming local girl, Loren McConnell (AnnaSophia Robb) for the “plague of blood,” as the river turning red coincided with the death of her brother, she’s convinced that they need her rational voice.
Katherine brings Ben with her on the expedition and the two find the town fairly hospitable, and the story of the blood-red river has been isolated from any outside media coverage. The two find the river has, indeed turned to blood and when additional plagues begin to occur, such as the death of cattle and a brief rain of frogs, the townsfolk begin to talk about targeting Loren McConnell, whose family they say practice black magic, and who has gone into hiding. As events accelerate, Katherine finds herself a lone voice of sanity as the townspeople turn their fear of Loren into murderous intentions in an attempt to thwart the darkness threatened as the last of the ten plagues.
Director Stephen Hopkins returns to the horror well again (after “A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child” and “Predator 2” amongst other TV work) with mixed results. It’s a slick, nice-looking film with a solid cast, but the script is a bit lacking. Somehow, it manages to seem both under-developed and over-complicated. Given the threadbare nature of the screenplay and its undistinguished nature, one is curious as to why Hilary Swank decided to appear in it. Presumably, tackling a genre piece and a possibly effective twist-ending may have had some appeal and offered a nice diversion from the heavier dramatic fare she tends to do lately…
The acting is fine and production design is handsome, but the digital effects are very uneven. There are some impressive sequences, like the locust attack and the over-the-top finale, which mix both on-set effects and CGI, but added to the mix are embarrassing bits that look unfinished and are unintentionally funny. The sequence of the cattle attack on the truck is effective, as it’s mostly physical effects and strong sound design and editing, but the scene afterwards of sick cattle is inept and silly, reversing any mood that has been established and opens the film to audience derision from here-on out. While the computer effects involved in turning a river into the color of blood are mostly convincing, the verisimilitude of the sequence is weakened the longer it plays out and the more we get to see of it. The river is almost too boldly colored. It’s too red, too bright and the somewhat pallid nature of the area around it makes the color stand out stronger, bringing to mind a photograph tweaked via Photoshop to boost its color, but it goes a notch too far. It may have been wiser to keep the surrounding landscape vivid and make the river a notch darker almost towards brown. Instead it’s pushed into the color of “Hawaiian Punch,” which, while overly acidic, seems more tasty than scary. Weaker elements like these pull the audience completely out of the movie, and you may find yourself watching the rest of the proceedings with folded arms. There’s a twist at the conclusion, but the film has been so alternately confusing and goofy that it seems more of a cheat than a legitimate surprise.
There’s significant evidence that some re-editing and re-shooting may have occurred after test screenings. The film was released eight months after its originally scheduled release date (I must have seen the trailer 10 times or so over a 6 month period) and certain elements don’t gel with the whole. The whole subplot with Father Michael Costigan (Stephen Rea) feels tacked-on as an afterthought: he never appears with the principals in a single shot, and has absolutely no effect on the story. In fact, apart from a cutaway or two of him in the desert inserted into the Africa flashback, he only appears in scenes at the seminary and interacts with Katherine solely via the phone. As another reviewer stated, he literally phones in his role. In addition, Swank’s hair seems to change appearance from scene to scene, particularly in the first third of the film. If Father Costigan didn’t appear in the film originally, it must have been quite a short film, and even more simple than it appears in its final edit.
Peter Levy’s 2.40:1 Panavision photography is well-presented by the HD DVD transfer, with colors that are faithful to the production’s intentions and fine detail. Blacks are dense and colors that erupt in night scenes are bold and vivid. The opening sequence in Chile has a dusty, flat look to it that feels artificial and a bit forced. This isn’t a transfer issue, more of an odd choice in the color-timing or digital intermediate stage. There are a few oddly colored sequences sprinkled throughout the picture.
The uncompressed Dolby TrueHD track is extremely impressive, both detailed and explosive at times. It’s a somewhat loud mix with weighty bass presence that has significant oomph to it. The attack on the truck by a mad steer is given an extra boost in the shock department because of the weighty, violent impacts conveyed by the bass channel. Surround usage is well-utilized; it’s mostly used quietly for a sense of atmosphere, with minimal bold eruptions, but it brings the locust attack scene to vivid life as the surrounds are heavily used to convey the buildup of landing locusts on the unseen backdoor. It’s a terrific effect that immerses you in the film for a brief moment and makes the scenes immediately after much more exciting. It’s a cool demo scene to showcase bold surround channel usage.
While the amount of listed extras appears substantial, they’re all fairly brief and total less than 30 minutes combined. “The Science of the 10 Plagues” is worthwhile and it’s a rational exploration into possible scientific reasons for the 10 biblical plagues. The theories discussed here are quoted by Hilary Swank’s character without attribution in “The Reaping,” so the inclusion of this piece is a nice nod to those responsible for the original theory. It plays like a “Discovery Channel” piece and is well produced and the ideas are solidly laid out. “The Reaping: The Seventh Plague” focuses on the making of the locust attack sequence, but is irritatingly flimsy at under 2 minutes. Given the indications of post-production re-working evident in the final film, some kind of featurette or commentary discussing that aspect would have been welcome, as would the teasers and trailers, which are maddeningly absent.