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Reaping, The (2007) Print E-mail
Thursday, 05 April 2007
A new year brings many things, but one of the most common these days is a flock of horror movies—pictures expected to open big and then fade away rapidly, turning up eventually on home video, where they traditionally have a long, profitable life. What isn’t common is when these movies star Oscar winners, though it does happen: after winning an Oscar for “Monster’s Ball,” Halle Berry turned up in “Gothika.” And now, after winning TWO Oscars, Hilary Swank can be found at your local multiplex in “The Reaping.”

The movie is distinctly better than “Gothika” (though from the same production company, Dark Castle), but it’s made up of so many familiar elements that despite strenuous work on the part of director Stephen Norrington, and despite Swank’s excellent work, “The Reaping” is basically just another commonplace horror movie.

Swank is college professor Katherine Winter, who has made a career of debunking religious miracles all around the world. We see her involved in her latest job, helped by associate Ben (Idris Elba, from “The Wire”), then giving a lecture on what she discovered. We gradually learn that she was an ordained minister; when she, her husband and daughter, went to Africa—the Sudan—to do missionary work, there was a year-long drought. The newcomers were thought responsible, and her husband and daughter were killed as sacrifices to appease God. She lost her faith—but retained a Catholic priest friend (Stephen Rea)—and embarked on her career of debunkery.

She’s reluctantly summoned to a small town, Haven, out in the bayou area of Louisiana (where the movie actually was filmed): a young boy died and the local river turned red. The locals are sure it’s blood, and that the boy’s younger sister, Loren (AnnaSophia Robb from “Bride to Terabithia”), was responsible both for his death and the bloody river.

Katherine and Ben are greeted by Doug (David Morrissey), an attractive young man whose family has long roots in Haven; he’s restoring his family’s handsome old mansion, where he invites the newcomers to stay.

When Katherine and Ben investigate the red river, they’re caught in a momentary rain of dead frogs. Are the ten plagues of Exodus happening all over again? And if they are—and they seem to be—why? Brian Rousso’s story was turned into a screenplay by Chad and Carey Hayes. The Hayes brothers also wrote the recent “House of Wax,” which wasn’t as terrible as it might have been, but still left a lot to be desired. The same is true of “The Reaping;” various elements are tossed into the mix—photos of Katherine being damaged in a telling manner, a woman shooting herself—which simply make no sense in the context of the plot. But they’re included because, you know, they’re like cool and stuff. The hit-and-miss quality of “The Reaping” does not bode well for the other remakes the Hayeses are currently writing: “The Innocents” and “The Blob.”
Stephen Norrington has had a spotty directorial career; he did the 5th ‘Nightmare on Elm Street” as well as “Predator 2;” his “Lost in Space” was nearly disastrous, but he’s been busy on TV’s “24” since. Maybe he’s sharpened his directorial skills: several sudden-shock scenes in “The Reaping” work extremely well—at least I jumped—and there’s an intermittently strong sense of the Louisiana locale.

Both Swank and Robb are extremely good; Swank finds more details, more shades to her character than I think were in the script. Her Katherine feels solid, real, believable; so does Idris Elba as Ben. David Morrisey as Doug is another matter; he’s as uneven as the movie itself. Stephen Rea seems shoehorned into the movie—he never has a scene with the rest of the cast, and never turns up in Louisiana.

The various plagues are also intermittent; the plague of flies is over with in an instant, and highly localized: the food on a barbecue grill. The boils happen to a few people isolated in a room. The rain of frogs is over with in a moment—but the locust hordes are another matter. Norrington plays this for all it’s worth—Katherine is inside when the locust storm strikes, and the light dims as millions of locusts cover the windows. Outside, people are attacked by clouds of insects, and few get away. The special effects here are lively and convincing—but this is another plot element that doesn’t seem to fit into what we finally learn is the Sinister Plot behind it all.

Not only does the plot not seem to coalesce in a logical manner, but the film has what has unfortunately come to be a trademark of contemporary horror films. I won’t reveal what that is, as it’s a genuine Spoiler; let’s just say you’ve seen this element again and again, even when it doesn’t work.

Norrington does a good job most of the time, but in a was-it-a-dream sex scene (largely cribbed from “Rosemary’s Baby”) and a few of the action scenes, he resorts to clumsy hand-held camera work and jumbled, overly-swift editing, undermining the intent of his own scenes.

The photography by Peter Levy is extremely good, and takes great advantage of the scenic bayou locale. The score by John Frizzell is reasonably good, though it’s damaged by the tendency throughout to play important sounds WAY TOO DAMNED LOUDLY. Norrington seems to want to batter us into a state of terror, but as usual, the bellowing sound effects and music have the opposite effect of that which was intended.

The ending is an (appropriately) Biblically epic climax, with bolts of fire stabbing out of the skies. This is visually exciting, but as the movie does throughout, it doesn’t answer the underlying question of whether God or Satan is controlling the plagues—but at least it does present the question. Ever since they began—basically with “Dracula” in 1931—horror movies have used Christian religious elements, usually as the remedy for the scary stuff, and sometimes as the power behind the bad news. Here, it’s a little of both, but the ending does, annoyingly, suggest the story isn’t over yet, and that Satan is writing the plot.

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