Fans of Hollywood remakes sure get their money's worth here. The Reaping updates, references or just plain rips off no fewer than four, maybe five, supernatural staples, including The Omen, Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist and The Wicker Man.
Hilary Swank, apparently figuring that two Oscars is plenty, does the easy paycheck thing as Katherine Winter, a one-time ordained minister who lost her faith after her husband and daughter were murdered by religious fanatics in Africa. As career changes go, hers is a peach. She secures a position at Louisiana State University, where she teaches a course on the foolishness of faith and, in her spare time, runs around the world uncovering scientific explanations for purported miracles.
Currently she's 48 for 48. Number 49, however, turns out to be a toughie. Swank gets a call from a teacher (David Morrissey) in a backwater bayou burg. It seems the town river has suddenly turned blood red, and the first-born son of a local family has died, apparently slain by his 12-year-old sister.
Swank calls in a foolishness-of-faith sub, picks up her faithful miracle-debunking buddy - Idris Elba of "The Wire" - and heads to the unfortunately named village of Haven, where the two accept the Southern hospitality of the teacher and set about taking samples of the water. And the fish floating on its surface. And the frogs that proceed to fall from the sky.
Even the professional skeptic soon has to concede that the place has for some mysterious reason been chosen to suffer the 10 plagues of Exodus. Tests show the river is 100 percent human blood. Cows are dropping like flies. Flies and maggots are ruining barbecues. People are contracting terminal cases of boils. And then, you guessed it: locusts the size of Swiss Army knives.
The worse things get, the more townsfolk threaten to form a mob and kill the little girl accused of the murder (AnnaSophia Robb). They think she's to blame for the Biblical brouhaha because she was raised by white-trash devil worshippers. And because whenever something supernatural happens, she's nearby, standing there staring straight ahead without saying a word while everybody else is running around hollering their heads off.
The latest from Predator 2 director Stephen Hopkins, The Reaping isn't much more than an excuse for a lot of computer-generated effects and cheap joy-buzzer jolts. The acting's bland. The dialogue's bad. The early banter between Swank and Elba has a low-key comic breeziness that helps bring their characters to life, but the script slams the brakes on the laughs before the end of the first act. Two or three logic-defying twists in the final moments are likely to stir dozing viewers, though. This may be the finest major release to combine the Old Testament and date rape.
It's become chic for critics to glean serious subtexts from shlocky films. The Host, for example, has been widely credited with taking a cheeky jab at U.S. military policy between scenes in which a giant pollywog snacks on fleeing South Koreans. If I didn't know better, I'd say The Reaping manages a veiled yet potent statement about the threat posed by religious zealotry. Between the African cult, the Bible thumpers and Satan's faithful, enough blood is shed to fill a river - quite literally - and everyone's certain they're doing their Lord's will. Sounds less like end-times than modern times to me.
Too bad almost nothing else in the movie makes half as much sense as that insight. This is the sort of story that starts to fall apart as you leave the theater and has crumbled entirely by the time you reach your car. Swank takes the otherworldly preteen under her wing, and the makers of the film leave them poised for a sequel as the credits roll. In a picture that features devil worship prominently, the producers' belief system may be the weirdest of all. Popular demand for a trip back to Haven? That really would be a miracle.