Monday, April 07, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: The Reaping (2007)

In the tradition of The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976) and The Seventh Sign (1988) comes The Reaping (2007), a religious-themed horror flick directed by Stephen Hopkins. Oscar-winner Hilary Swank stars as LSU professor Katherine Winter, who debunks incidences of Biblical "plagues" for a living and finds special pleasure in "disproving miracles."

After solving a case in Concepcion, Chile (a location portrayed by terrible CGI...), a triumphant Winter returns to the States and at the behest of a local high-school science teacher (David Morrissey) agrees to assist a remote Southern town called Haven with...a problem. It seems that the idyllic, off-the-radar town is undergoing a plague of its own (a local bayou turned blood-red), and the superstitious townsfolk blame a shunned twelve-year old girl on welfare for the curse. This strikes a chord with Katherine, because her young daughter was murdered on a missionary trip to Africa. In fact, it was that incident that caused Katherine - formerly a Christian - to lose faith.

On arrival in Haven (motto: What you waiting for? God don't have all day!), Katherine suspects pfisteria as the cause of the bayou's crimson hue. However, before long, other Biblical plagues are visited upon the town. Particularly, (and in chronological order): raining frogs, the death of livestock, an outbreak of boils, and an attack by locusts. Katherine is hard-pressed to explain this series of catastrophic events, but the locals suspect that "there's something unnatural going on."

Ya think?

You can probably write the rest of this synopsis yourself if you've ever seen a horror film. Katherine - a disbeliever who has "lost faith" because of that personal tragedy in her past - is forced to reckon with and re-evaluate her religious beliefs in the face of mounting evidence of the supernatural (and THE PRESENCE OF GOD!). And the tale of an "evil little girl" (like Samara in The Ring [2002]) is actually a smoke-screen for a story about the primacy of the maternal instinct and motherhood. During the climax, there's much fire and light and sound and fury as God's wrath is visited upon the Evil Doers in Haven like shock and awe in Baghdad. The Evil Doers in this case -- spoiler alert -- turn out to be ensconced in a Satanist cult. And they have a most unusual eugenics program going on...

So, basically, The Reaping is kind of like a southern-fried Brotherhood of Satan (1971). Just not that good. The film's best scene involves Katherine, explaining in a well-delivered monologue, a detailed scientific explanation for the ten plagues visited upon Egypt in pre-history (according to the Bible). It's a brilliant recitation of scientific hypothesis - and absolutely believable and plausible to the final iteration. And yet, even in this strong scene, I felt a little let down. Why? Gillian Anderson would have done it better. Seriously, this moment plays like a decent X-Files monologue from Scully. Only problem is that The X-Files countenanced this material every week for years and years...and did it soooo much better. When Swank delivers it, it's petulant regurgitation of fact. When Anderson delivered material such as this to Duchovny, it was virtual sexual foreplay...and immediately rebutted with equal passion and plausibility.

On a script level, The Reaping doesn't really play fair with the viewer either. Throughout the film, Katherine experiences nightmares which might be real, and "dazzling" psychic visions or flashes of events she couldn't have possibly witnessed first hand, but which in an obligatory fashion provide her critical information to solve the puzzle of the plagues. The issue, however, is that the script doesn't include Katherine's reaction to these all-too-frequent psychic interludes. One hallucination finds her walking out on a front porch, walking to an outdoor sink, grabbing a rag, and washing up a little girl's menstrual blood from the child's leg. Then the girl disappears -- like she was never there. Katherine is still holding the rag and standing on the porch. So...does Katherine think she imagined it? Does she think she saw a ghost? Was it real to her? Was it a fantasy? The movie never decides how the character views these flashes (which I suspect were added later, in an attempt to salvage some sense of clarity...). She just walks back into the house and walks around. In this situation, (especially if I were a rational debunker...), I'd say...okay, I'm still holding the rag. There's blood on it. Therefore I did not hallucinate this encounter. What's going on? Or some such thing.

Or maybe I'd just run screaming like a little girl and get the hell out of Haven. I don't know. Toss up.

Anyway, here's how I know the movie never decides what Katherine thinks she sees during these psychic flashes. After the event with the menstrual blood, Katherine gets on the phone with her token black sidekick, and he asks her about what she saw at the house. She instantly changes the subject instead of answering...a blatant cop-out. D'oh! That's not playing fair with the audience. She doesn't even say. "I'm not sure," or "I think I'm seeing things." She just blithely changes the subject, ignoring his question. Come on movie, work with me, all right?

There are some other notable gaps in logic. One of Katherine's long-distance friends is a priest, played by a slumming-it Stephen Rea (what, Neil Jordan wasn't making a movie this week?). He is receiving "signs" (from God or the Devil) that Katherine is in danger. The priest speaks with her on the telephone, and warns her -- in a long dialogue scene -- about a Biblical prophecy which she may be playing a role in (as an ordained minister herself). He gets out a long-winded bit of exposition, highly-detailed and informative, but then - after he finishes - his office catches fire and he burns to death (while Katherine is still on the phone). So the Devil is so powerful he can spontaneously burn up a priest's office and a priest, long-distance (ostensibly from Hell...).

So why didn't he do that before the priest delivered the critical exposition to Katherine, the one person who might stop the Devil's master plan? See, it's one of those movies. You start to think about it...and the whole thing falls apart.

The entire film plays at that level of just-a-little-too-stupid, riffing derivatively on Rosemary's Baby (1968) for its "surprise" ending. There are occasional moments of legitimate visual ingenuity, such as a "locust cam." I really loved that touch, I must admit. Locusts swarm onto the camera lens for a few seconds, and the viewer can't make out what's happening....only witness the crawling bugs moving around. Ewww. Also, I have never seen Hilary Swank look hotter. She's smoking sexy here. Kathryn thought the Oscar-winner's presence would assure a decent thriller, but I have a long, long memory. "Remember The Core, my dear," I said. "Remember The Core..."

Not much else to say about The Reaping, really, except that I'm glad -- at the very least -- it isn't a remake, and that David Morrissey better stop making terrible movies like this pronto (he was also in Basic Instinct 2), or he's going to be associated with cinematic plagues by bad movie lovers for years to come. Another thing: I must wonder what's happened to Stephen Hopkins, who once upon a time directed promising horrors such as A Nightmare on Elm Street V: The Dream Child (an underrated Freddy sequel...), Predator 2 (another underrated sequel), and The Ghost and the Darkness (1996). I guess directing Lost in Space (1998) has finally caught up with the guy.

Here's my closing thought: It might have been interesting (and original, rather than derivative), if instead of this movie concerning a fallen character rediscovering her faith (which we've seen a million times in movies like The Exorcist), Hilary here had just debunked all the plagues and proved that every event had an entirely rational explanation. Why does Hollywood insist that "atheists" always must discover (or re-discover) God? Why can't it ever be the other way around? Why can't an atheist be a hero and an atheist at the same time? (Here's why: to make money, you have to pander to the masses and reinforce - not challenge - established beliefs.) I'm not saying atheists are right in their world view or anything, only that a little variation on a theme might be nice now and again.

1 comment:

  1. Actually I think "The Ledge" features a atheistic hero. This is not a film about supernatural events but it is a thriller that pits a Christian against a atheist and the atheist prevails. The producer is Matthew Chapman, who is a staunch real life atheist.