The cooky religious horror movie The Reaping is not without merit; it’s sort of a bloodier version of The Wicker Man . There were some possibilities here, including a sense of place, and some intriguingly irrational dreams. And the mana power of menstrual blood has a curious potency in modern horror, from Stephen King’s Carrie to Clive Barker’s Weaveworld . It’s a concept absolutely resistant to secular sterilization. But the inept director, Stephen Hopkins, has gone out of his way to botch this movie.
The Reaping takes place in the isolated bayou town of Haven, where a little girl seems to be bringing back the Biblical plagues. Hilary Swank – make that Oscar winner Hilary Swank, pulling a Halle Berry and rapidly squandering her new-found cache for a paycheck – is some vague variety of college professor. She used to be a missionary; but after the deaths of her husband and daughter, she’s become the nation’s chief skeptic and commando debunker of purported religious miracles. It takes a good six or seven plagues to get her to change her mind.
Swank’s performance as the silly scientist is not aided by her inane dialog. Here’s her speech, explaining away the book of Exodus:
"River of blood? Red algae. Killed the frogs. Frogs didn’t eat the larvae, so fly and gnat populations exploded. Biting flies killed the livestock. Diseased cow bodies led to boils. Volcanic activity caused hail and air-to-air lightning, interpreted as fire. The destroyed crops disrupted the grasshopper food supply, and they swarmed. Volcanic ash and clouds of locusts cast the land into darkness. And since the firstborn children were given the largest share of the food, they got more of the diseases, and died. Ten plagues; ten scientific explanations."
…and this is the house that Jack built. I’m sure she’s saving an explanation of the parted walls of water in the Red Sea and the River Jordan for an encore.
Director Hopkins has one passable movie on his resume: Predator 2 , which worked because it wasn’t stingy on gore. The Reaping has rivers of blood — literally. We see a crane dip its white face into the water, and come out red; a nice touch. But Hopkins seems constantly to be struggling to find the right lens; in the sex scene, I couldn’t even tell who was putting what where. No cheap shock is beneath him. The grasshopper attack works, as far as it goes, but the CGI and puppet cattle really needed to go back to the drawing board. And if you understand what the ending means, you’re a better man than I.
Though Swank is the least convincing scientist since Tara Reid in Alone in the Dark , The Reaping contains a breakout performance that even a bungling director can’t obscure. It’s provided by an actor named Idris Elba – remember that name — who plays a former gang member, miraculously spared from a shooting, who has become a man of faith, and Swank’s graduate student assistant. This huge, thickly-muscled black man has an eye-opening gentleness, bringing believability to a role that does not deserve it. Someone write this man his own movie.
This and other theater, music, and movie reviews can be read, listened to, or podcast at wfiu.org. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.