The posters for The Reaping pose the question, “What hath God wrought?”—and apparently answer themselves by having Hilary Swank’s name placed beneath the question, thereby setting the unintentionally comedic tone of this overwrought Mulligan’s stew of rip offs from other horror movies.
Indeed, The Reaping is far more entertaining if approached as a trivia game, with the viewer identifying the movies screenwriters Carey W. and Chad Haynes (the twin scribes responsible for the 2005 House of Wax) have appropriated for their own dubious ends. Some of these are to be expected, since all religion-based horror stories share certain elements, and Messrs. Haynes and Haynes have missed none of them. (That they seem to be a couple plagues shy of the full Exodus that forms the crux of their drama is perhaps a theological concern rather than a cinematic one.)
Echoes (I’m being kind here) of William Fredkin’s The Exorcist (1973), Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976), Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (1987), Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Michael Winner’s The Sentinel (1977), Gore Verbinski’s The Ring (2002) and even such esoterica as Frank LaLoggia’s bad-taste extravaganza Fear No Evil (1981) are one thing. Carving a slab off M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (2002) is a bit stranger. But what is one to make of wholesale borrowings from John Boorman’s legendary box-office disaster Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)? In other hands, I might view this as artistic inspiration. Here, it’s somewhere between a cinematic death wish and outright insanity.
The Reaping starts off by borrowing its structure from Exorcist II. Boorman’s film starts with priest Richard Burton finding his exorcist calling shaken when a subject sets herself ablaze instead of responding to his ministrations. Here we have La Swank as Katherine Winter, a freshly ordained minister and Christian missionary, who has gone to Africa at the behest of Catholic priest Father Costigan (Stephen Rea apparently channeling Patrick Troughton in The Omen). (Just why the mentor of a protestant minister should be a Catholic priest is probably best explained by the popular cultural notion that priests are somehow creepier than other men of the cloth.) Events in Africa—losing her husband and daughter to a sacrificial ritual—turn Katherine into a movie atheist. Movie atheists differ from ones in the real world, since movie atheists only become unbelievers through some trauma or other that causes them to lose their previously zealot-level faith. So put off by religion is she that she travels the globe like the Amazing Randi debunking miracles. This lady never met a miracle she couldn’t disprove, but all this is about to change. Father Costigan tries to warn her of impending danger, his concern stemming from the fact that photos of Katherine have spontaneously combusted to eradicate her face. Worse, if these photos are put together in a certain way they form the ancient symbol of a sickle (how he hits upon the arrangement necessary is a miracle the movie doesn’t question), which means … well, something. (Why it mightn’t indicate an incipient conversion to communism is never addressed.)
Enter Doug (David Morrissey, Basic Instinct 2) from a really out-of-the-way town in the Louisiana bayou called Haven. They have a problem in Haven—namely that the river (well, two miles of it anyway) appears to have turned to blood. Will Katherine accept the hospitality of his old dark plantation and prove to the religious, primitive locals that there is a rational explanation, and that whatever it is has nothing to do with the area’s resident wild child Loren McConnell (AnnaSophia Robb, Bridge to Terabithia)? Of course Katherine accepts, because otherwise the movie would end right there.
Naturally, the town is creepy, the locals are odd, and the Exodus-derived shenanigans keep on coming—not always very persuasively (the rain of frogs here is pretty tepid when compared with the one in P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia (1999)). Even less persuasive is Katherine’s inability to test the water to see if it really is blood without sending samples back to Baton Rouge—not to mention a level of stubbornness in the matter that would make old Pharaoh look pretty darned reasonable. I don’t know about you, but by the third or fourth plague, I’d find my disbelief a little wobbly.
Of course, nothing (and no one) is as it seems—something the film telegraphs almost immediately—and there’s a silly plot twist and an ending that’s stupefyingly like the one Boorman cut from Exorcist II after its first three days in theaters (it’s back on the home video releases). The film tops it all with a sequel setup at the very end that only lacks Mia Farrow’s line, “This isn’t a dream, this is really happening,” from Rosemary’s Baby to stop it from being outright plagiarism.
While there’s some amusement value in seeing Swank beset by locusts, there’s not much actual good to be gotten out of the silliness. Ponder this, however: Since Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis saw fit to coerce Oscar-winners Halle Berry and Hilary Swank into two of their Dark Castle productions with Gothika (2003) and this, can we look forward to Helen Mirren gracing one of their cheese-fests next year? Think of the possibilities! Rated R for violence, disturbing images and some sexuality.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke