This review was written for the theatrical release of "The Reaping."
If you were to put together a horror film by committee, it would look a lot like "The Reaping." Someone would suggest borrowing from "The Omen," which would lead someone else to propose lifting from "The Exorcist" and perhaps a third person would pitch an ending twist reminiscent of "Rosemary's Baby."
The Louisiana bayou would make a nicely mysterious location. Everyone knows that decadent, inbred Southerners live in antebellum mansions while poor white trash occupy shacks in the swamp. People there fear an Old Testament God, yet devil worshippers are everywhere. Throw in 10 biblical plagues, and you've got "The Reaping."
The only question is: What is two-time Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank doing in this fanciful rubbish? Her name and the promise of hordes of CGI locusts probably mean the film will scare up a crowd for its opening weekend. But whether this religious horror will sustain the release in subsequent weeks is a real question.
"Reaping" never tips its hand as to how seriously it wants to be taken. The film comes from Warners-based Dark Castle Entertainment -- Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis' company that makes tongue-in-cheek genre movies, a kind of We're Just Kidding Prods. But the writers, brothers Casey W. and Chad Hayes, and director Stephen Hopkins, who cut his teeth on HBO's "Tales From the Crypt," play things straight, taking the religious miracles more or less at face value.
Swank certainly acts as if the stakes were real rather than camp. Her Katherine Winter has made a profession of being a nonbeliever. Once a minister, she lost her faith and family in tragic bloodshed in the Sudan, the result of narrow-minded religious fanaticism. So she spends her days debunking supposed miracles. Can that actually be a job? She also lectures at LSU about religion-as-nonsense, but you do wonder in what department she teaches.
A science teacher (David Morrissey) from a backwater town called Haven -- yes, that's the name -- comes to this debunker with a problem. Haven's river has turned blood red, and a child has died. Katherine and her assistant Ben (Idris Elba) agree to take a look. It takes only one spooky day and night for Ben to declare, "We are witnessing biblical events." Fish die in the bloody waters, frogs fall from the sky, and cows keel over.
Town folks believe a little girl named Loren (AnnaSophia Robb) brought God's wrath down on Haven because she killed her brother. They mean to "destroy" her. Meanwhile, in a sanctuary far, far away, a priest (Stephen Rea) reads the signs and warns Katherine that she is in mortal danger.
Hopkins pulls all the usual horror-film tricks. He keeps his camera inches from his actors so any person, object or animal entering the frame causes a cheap jolt. Most investigations take place in the dead of night, electricity fails at a crucial moment, and many things go bump in the night. This is hokum with a capital H.
Swank looks justifiably perplexed, but there is no emotional depth to her character. Each fright sequence triggers a flashback both to the Sudan and to the little girl's recent experiences. You wonder how a character can have the memories of two people, but -- whoops -- here comes another plague to distract you from such thoughts.
One either likes this sort of thing or not. Even fans might not buy the ending in which more people get wiped out than in Hurricane Katrina. The tech departments lay on the Old Testament fireworks with appropriate flash, but the characters get thoroughly lost in the CGI blizzard.
Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures presents in association with Village Roadshow Pictures
a Dark Castle Entertainment production
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Screenwriters: Casey W. Hayes, Chad Hayes
Story: Brian Rousso
Producers: Joel Silver, Robert Zemeckis, Susan Downey, Herbert W. Gains
Executive producers: Erik Olsen, Steve Richards, Bruce German
Director of photography: Peter Levy
Production designer: Graham "Grace" Walker
Music: John Frizzell
Costume designer: Jeffrey Kurland
Editor: Colby Parker Jr.
Cast: Katherine Winter: Hilary Swank
Doug Blackwell: David Morrissey
Ben: Idris Elba
Loren: AnnaSophia Robb
Father Costigan: Stephen Rea
Running time -- 100 minutes
MPAA rating: R