In "The Reaping," Hilary Swank endures the 10 biblical plagues and takes on a backwoods Satanic cult. Having faced killer homophobes in "Boys Don't Cry" and deadly bedsores in "Million Dollar Baby," the two-time Oscar winner would seem perfect for the job of snuffing out evil.
But this long-delayed, pitiful excuse for a horror film feels like penance for her great success. She's all wrong for this sort of effects-drenched disaster picture, anyway. To get a sense of the incongruity, imagine Sally Field in her prime carrying, say, 1985's "Howling II."
"The Reaping" does have a kernel of campy promise. Swank plays professor Katherine Winter , an ex-missionary minister who, after losing her entire family in some Sudanese blood rite, trots the globe using science to debunk supposed miracles. She's a merciless, atheistic Lara Croft, kicking the poor and the hopeless while they're down. But since this is the rare horror film about the power of belief, we quickly know she'll have the bejesus scared back into her by the time it's over.
After overturning her 48th purported miracle in Chile, Katherine returns home to Louisiana State University, where she's greeted by David Morrissey , last seen opposite Sharon Stone in "Basic Instinct 2 ." He plays a schoolteacher who provides Katherine with her biggest case yet.
A river in his little bayou town, hilariously called Haven , flows with blood, and the townsfolk have placed the blame on a blond girl (AnnaSophia Robb ) who was found nearby with her dead brother. They think she murdered him.
The schoolteacher tells Katherine that the town is convinced this is the start of the plagues. Sure enough, when she arrives with her co-worker Ben (Idris Elba ), a practicing, religiously tattooed Christian, the countdown begins: a hail of frogs, a swarm of locusts, diseased livestock, nasty boils on the skin, etc.
In Exodus , the plagues were calamities that God wrought on the Egyptians for enslaving the Israelites . But Katherine is unmoved, offering a perfectly natural rationalization for it all. Such explanations require Swank to speak in paragraphs that illuminate her literacy but not her talent.
She may rely on facts, but Katherine's unconscious has a mind of its own. She has nightmares of the Sudan and sex fantasies about the schoolteacher. She also has to figure out why her old priest friend (Stephen Rea , looking suitably embarrassed) keeps insisting she's in danger.
The screenplay by Carey W. Hayes and Chad Hayes (they wrote that 2005 "House of Wax" remake), never credibly explains what's going on. Not after one viewing -- and that was enough for me, thank you. None of what we discover is ever interesting enough to make us care . The story vaguely cribs from "The Wicker Man ," "Rosemary's Baby ," "The Exorcist ," and "The Omen ," but doesn't come close to the lasting fright of any of those titles. And why drag Louisiana or Sudan into any of this, only to portray the people who live there as insultingly backward ?
Stephen Hopkins directs "The Reaping" according to the Satanic horror manual, right down to the choral chanting on the soundtrack. The lighting is often too dark to see what's happening, and the editing makes a mess of even the most tolerable scenes (the locust attack, for example). Like most of these movies, the film is cut like a trailer for a horror flick instead of being a horror flick proper. And the staging of the final sequence is laughable. Surrounded by explosions, and computer effects worthy of any Atari game, the actors appear to be standing around while a wind fan blows .
Swank, of course, is a trouper, playing a part meant for an actor with a quarter of her fame and half her Oscars. But would Sarah Michelle Gellar even have dared?