Godsploitation movies in recent years, like Bless the Child, Stigmata, End of Days and so on, have turned out to be a lot like the traveling salesmen of the horror film world. They show up on your doorstep, looking polished and clean, make a pitch you can't refuse, and pretend like they're your best friend. But after they're gone, you find out that they've taken your money, the merchandise they sold you isn't any good, and they might even have screwed your daughter while you weren't looking. Which is a shame, because American cinema nowadays is sorely lacking a rip-roaring, Scripture-quoting, scare-the-Red states, Hell-and-holocaust-filled religious-themed horror flick like The Exorcist or the better entries of The Omen series. Heck, I?d even settle for an updated The Seventh Sign! Unfortunately, the high profile Warner release of The Reaping doesn?t come very close to scratching that itch.
Oscar-winning quadriplegic suicide girl Hilary Swank stars as Katherine Winter, a former minister who lost her faith following the death of her husband and daughter in the Sudan (apparently human sacrifice is still popular there). Katherine, now the kind of Hollywood screenplay atheist who you just know will revert back to her dogma before the end credits roll, works as a university professor who debunks religious miracles, keeping count of them as if she?s got a personal vendetta against the Almighty. One day, Katherine and her assistant Ben (Idris Elba, playing a saved-from-the-grave, ex-gang banging street preacher type that seems to have been lifted right out of Boyz n the Hood) are called down to rural Louisiana to investigate a unique phenomenon: a river that has seemingly turned to blood, as in the Old Testament plagues that befell Egypt when Pharaoh wouldn?t ?let my people go.?
The town, significantly named Haven, is filled with typical movie-land God-fearing folk like smiling pregnant women and distrustful men with shotguns ? the only seemingly normal person is local schoolteacher Doug Blackwell (English actor David Morrissey, whose accent is as convincingly Southern as the Cajun accent used by Irish actor Liam Neeson in Next of Kin). Doug has called the plague-busters to Haven in hopes of a rational explanation for the blood-river that will calm the anger of the other townspeople, who blame the occurrence on a local welfare mom, whom they think is a Devil-worshipper, and her loner adolescent daughter Loren (AnnaSophia Robb, easily the creepiest little blonde girl since Dakota Fanning stared her way into our consciousness).
Katherine and Ben start looking into the mystery, only to discover that most of the evidence leads to one conclusion, and the rapid progression of raining frogs, fly and lice infestations, livestock deaths, boils, and more, bears it out: the plagues are real, and Haven is at the center of some sort of Biblical-level prophecy. But just what is causing this, and how does little Loren fit into it? Katherine, her surrogate mother instincts kicking into high gear, must unravel the mystery before the final plague arrives which will consume most of the town: the death of the first-born.
Released just in time for the Passover and Easter holidays, The Reaping is a movie calculated to appeal to the lowest common denominator, make a quick buck, then fade into the night like the good old Angel of Death. But it?s not without some degree of entertainment value. For instance, Swank tries gamely to bring a level of seriousness to the film, and the plagues themselves are well-realized when they aren?t overwhelmed by cheesy special effects (the CGI cows are especially chuckle-worthy). But the main problem with the movie, besides the fact that it?s never particularly scary despite a flirtation with some heavily Southern Gothic elements midway through, is that it takes itself seriously for the first two acts, then collapses into a mess of unexpected plot reversals and hastily-rewritten setpiece sequences in the third, all of which undermines what little effectiveness was established before.
Designed to make good trailer-fodder and get asses into seats, this CGI-heavy apocalyptic nonsense sinks the movie into self-parody. Take the locusts, for instance. Since none of the previous plagues could really be said to be all that personally threatening, at least in a movie sense, the screenwriters (previously behind the House of Wax remake) and director Stephen Hopkins (Predator 2, Lost in Space and Blown Away ? ?nuff said) channel the remake of The Mummy and make their clouds of computer-generated insects ravenous for human flesh, never mind that the actual threat of a locust plague is merely starvation after all the crops are destroyed. But the movie needs an immediate payoff and so, we get the high hilarity of seeing the actors flail around and roll under cars in order to escape the biting bytes. And in the end, the plagues themselves turn out to be not all that central to the plot, after all ? the movie invents an ancient sect of Satan worshippers who sacrifice their second-born (uh?why?), and turns them into the real villains, with the plagues being a kind of divine judgment raining down upon them.
The two divergent plots never really come together, and a stinger coda even confuses things further (though given how it turns out, the movie probably should have been called The Sowing). But it?s mindless entertainment in the end, however unscary and silly it might be, and you could do much worse, movie-wise, over the holiday weekend (like seeing Wild Hogs). But for once, I?d just like to see a screenwriter brave enough to create an atheist character who encounters supernatural events, yet remains an atheist! Or one who doesn?t have a tragic past that caused them to abandon God (there are happy atheists in this world, believe it or not). Until then, we?ll have to make do with hilarious crapola like the Omega Code and Left Behind movies until something better comes along.