Title: The Reaping
Genre: Horror, Thriller
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Screenwriters: Carey W. Hayes , Chad Hayes
Starring: Hilary Swank, David Morrissey, AnnaSophia Robb
Because of my affection for the genre, I hold out hope that someday soon, one of these religiously-themed horror films that pop up every couple of months will be coherent, perhaps even thoughtful, with a point of view. (The last such, by my count, was Stigmata.) The Reaping makes some lurches in the direction of something substantial, but panders, in the end, to the audience’s need for belief affirmation, and its (perceived) desire for a busy, fiery climax and plenty of ironic gotchas. Intellectually, the film is equivalent to the most invidious sort of religious faith: the sort that forms from a desire not to think.
Those not content to simply blow the movie off may latch on to The Reaping‘s bayou setting, and its persistent gestures toward some unspoken tragedy lurking in the recent past. In its most blatant concession to this bit of subtext, one of the plot’s central locations (the epicenter, we later learn, of the evil harassing our protagonists) is a dilapidated ruin left by “a couple of hurricanes,” but when the film’s most potent image is a Louisiana river filled with human blood, I don’t know how much more is needed. The screenplay is dodgy with respect to the origin of its Satanic goings-on, but the notion that they (or alternatively the townspeople’s decision to scapegoat a young girl) are a response to you-know-what is an intriguing one. And at the end of the film, after all the twists and the tricks and the fire and brimstone, I think I could actually make a colorable case for the metaphor, not as the story’s centerpiece but as an undercurrent: just as Katherine Winter (Hilary Swank) turned away from God after losing her husband and daughter to an atrocity, so the people of Haven turned away after (I take it) seeing their communities devastated. They just turned a few degrees farther than Katherine.
I’ve said too much, but now I may as well relate the film’s disappointing conclusion: if you turn away from God and do not repent, God will fucking kill you. You will die. The end. Katherine’s healthy-seeming skepticism is thrown to the wind, as is the sinister fascination of Haven’s lynch-mob bloodlust toward the “welfare mom” and her two kids on the outskirts of town. Ditto the theologically interesting notion of Satan turning the ten Biblical plagues against the faithful in order to (oh yes) create a diversion. Faith — the Christian variety, natch — is reaffirmed, as it must be, because otherwise God will smite you. The Reaping tosses out some tasty morsels, but ends up cowering in the corner, insisting it didn’t mean anything by it.
So much for thoughtful; how about suspenseful or frightening? Here, too, The Reaping runs into some obstacles, not least the immovable object that is director Stephen Hopkins. Responsible (along with hackazoid Akiva Goldsman) for what stands as the worst Hollywood blockbuster of the last decade — Lost in Space — he at least manages to offer some strong, borderline-disturbing imagery here: his literal rendering of rivers running with blood, fish kills and all, is memorably gross, and he manages to use AnnaSophia Robb (adorable in Bridge to Terabithia) to creepy effect. But the opening scenes, set in darkness and shot in awkward close-up, are so incomprehensible that I panicked, realizing that I didn’t know what I was looking at roughly 50% of the time. Once the lights turn on, Hopkins fares slightly better, though he continues to lean on lame false-alarm scares and to let serviceable but unremarkable special effects do the work of creating mood and atmosphere.
Much of the second act is devoted to an X-Files-like dynamic, with Katherine as the stubbornly scientific Scully and her partner Ben (Idris Elba) as the unflinchingly credulous Mulder. Some later revelations make the proceedings seem even more like an X-Files episode, only with more red herrings and booga-wooga horror maneuvers. It’s actually okay, as these things go, and I only got bored when the storyline derailed an hour into the 99-minute film. But just as The Reaping never lives up to its genre’s intellectual potential, nor does it tap into the fundamental creepiness of its conceit — the ten plagues are a prime example of how freakin’ scary Christian mythology really is, but the movie hardly knows what to do with them.
The film ends with a nasty little about-face blatantly stolen from a certain very well-regarded old horror film. By that point, it had long abandoned any semblance of sense, and I had abandoned hope that it would go anywhere remotely interesting. The Reaping, alas, is content with some cheap thrills and a lot of religious brownnosing.