PLAGUE IT AGAIN, SAM : Stephen Hopkins’ ‘The Reaping’ [2/10]

The grim shadow of Mel Gibson hangs rather heavily over The Reaping, an utterly ludicrous supernatural "thriller" squarely (indeed, blatantly) aimed at religious viewers who made his Passion of the Christ such a smash hit. The script – credited to brothers Carey W and Chad Hayes, from a story by Brian Rousso – also shares its basic story arc with Gibson's preposterous star-vehicle Signs: the protagonist is an ordained minister who loses their faith after the senseless, violent death of a loved one, but whose skepticism ultimately crumbles in the light of miraculous, quasi-apocalyptic events.

There's absolutely no reason why religious-themed, adult-oriented, grand-guignol chillers can't please believers and non-believers alike, of course: The Exorcism of Emily Rose showed how that kind of delicate balance can be struck. The Reaping, however, leaves absolutely no room for agnosticism or subjective interpretation: its stridently fundamentalist perspective is much more disturbing and (in the current American political climate) scary than any of the grisly visions conjured up by the picture's overworked, under-resourced special-effects department.

Katherine Winter (Hilary Swank) is a respected academic specialising in debunking apparent 'miracles' – many of which turn out, on the most cursory inspection, to be the result of corporate malfeasance rather than divine intervention ("the only 'miracle,'" she concludes, "is that people keep believing!") Her background makes her particularly well-qualified for such work: she worked as a Christian missionary in drought-stricken Africa until her husband and young daughter were murdered. It seems they were sacrificed as part of a rain-bringing ritual, but it's hard to be 100% certain about the specifics of these deaths as this backstory is told in fragmentary over-stylised, confusing flashbacks (featuring a homicidal witch-doctor figure whose presentation verges uncomfortably – and, one presumes, inadvertently – on the racist.)

Katherine's latest case involves a small town in rural Louisiana where the river has turned blood red after the mysterious death of a teenage youth. But this proves to be only the first of a series of bizarre occurrences which, superstitious townsfolk reckon, are replicating the biblical plagues sent by God to afflict the people of Egypt. With the assistance of colleague Ben (Idris Elba) and sympathetic local schoolteacher Doug (David Morrissey), Katherine tries to get to the bottom of the mystery – and finds that all lines of investigation lead to the dead boy's 12-year-old sister, the eerily self-possessed Lauren (AnnaSophia Robb)…

The Hayes' screenplay is an unholy agglomeration of themes explored in other, better movies: a dash or two of Wicker Man here; hefty gobbets of The Omen there (Stephen Rea is made to look particularly silly as a tormented priest); some Africa/locust/creepy-kid stuff from various Exorcist pictures; a naughty hint of Rosemary's Baby in the finale; and, along the way, nods to previous Southern-fried-Gothic escapades such as Angel Heart and The Gift (which was, let's not forget, Swank's first post-Boys Don't Cry release).

But the picture The Reaping most closely resembles is Iain Softley's The Skeleton Key (2005) – a similarly overcooked slice of Louisiana-set nonsense featuring all manner of dark secrets and rug-pulling revelations. While The Skeleton Key – for all its faults – built up to a genuinely surprising, ingenious and creepy twist, it doesn't take any kind of prophetic power to predict, fairly early on, the 'shock' revelation delivered during The Reaping's hysterically over-the-top climax. This perhaps wouldn't be such a problem if the whole thing wasn't quite so shoddily handled – the script is an overwrought tangle of confusing plot strands, riddled with implausibilities, inconsistencies and moments of startling tastelessness (as when we discover that, topically enough, Katherine's family were butchered in Sudan.)

Director Hopkins (rather more at home with his last feature, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers), meanwhile, evinces pretty much zero feel for the genre, with results that yield many more guffaws than jolts: the pixellated collapse of a CGI-rendered, plague-infested cow is a particularly amusing absurdity. Reliable sources suggest no less an eminence than Philip Glass wrote a full score for the movie, but this was for some reason deemed unsuitable – very late in the day – and John Frizzell was hastily drafted in to come up with a replacement.

It's impossible to make a comparison without hearing Glass's version but, if his classy recent work on The Illusionist and Notes on a Scandal are any guide, his efforts would likely have been several notches above Frizzell's excitable orchestrations, which thuddingly underline any vaguely sinister shot or development. Particularly 'theological' moments, meanwhile, are invariably provided with soaringly 'angelic' choral accompaniment which only serves to emphasise the portentous silliness of what's on screen.

One has to feel very sorry for David Morrissey – easily one of the most talented and charismatic actors on British TV for well over a decade (Holding On, The Deal, Blackpool, etc), but whose detours into American movies have ranged from the unfortunate (Captain Corelli's Mandolin) to the disastrous (Basic Instinct 2). The Reaping falls squarely into the latter category, and it's to be hoped that the actor will now hang fire until he finds a role and a vehicle worthy of his ability – and perhaps one where he isn't asked to essay that tricky Louisiana accent. Hilary Swank, however, will no doubt bounce back. Her last excursion into ropey, dopey B-movie material – 2003's science-fictioner The Core – proved the prelude to her second Oscar win, for Million Dollar Baby.

Then again, The Core looks like 2001 alongside the clumsy inanities of The Reaping – whose title, incidentally, is never explained or even mentioned in the film itself. And perhaps somebody, somewhere, is trying to tell Swank something: it was at her insistence that the location of the film be shifted from New England to the Deep South. The producers agreed – and then had to close down production for a week when Hurricane Katrina hit the region. When they upped sticks to Baton Rouge, filming was again interrupted, this time by the proximity of Hurricane Rita. The Lord, as they say, works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform – though He's hopefully got bigger fish to fry these days than delaying the shoots of lousy 'horror' movies…

Neil Young
16th April, 2007

THE REAPING : [2/10] : USA 2007 : Stephen HOPKINS : 99 mins (BBFC timing)
seen at Empire cinema, Gate complex, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (UK), 16th April 2007 – press show

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