Cinema Signal:

Complete Idiot's Guide to Biblical Mysteries
by Donald Ryan
(in Paperback from Amazon)
. "The Reaping"

Your biblical lesson for today, kiddies, is the loosely translated advice from god: "As ye sow, so shall ye reap." Someone should have echoed that loudly in the White House in 2000. As we suffer that particular reaping, horror-meister Stephen Hopkins ("The Ghost and the Darkness," "Tales From the Crypt," etc.) sows some pseudo-religious horror upon us, unleashing a river of blood and other top ten plagues. As for his reaping, that'll undoubtedly take place at the boxoffice as those who flock to variants of the genre line up.

However... once you withstand the loud audio shocks and other man-made contrivances to suggest something dramatic is going on, there's something here that might be considered redeemable. Namely, it's that once gold-standard actress, Hilary Swank. Here, she turns her boxing creds ("Million Dollar Baby") and agonizing sin of deception ("Boys Don't Cry") to the commercial side. (Darth Vader, are you open to converts?) But that's all right -- if the feast of a perfect body in jungle gear works for you.

Rigged out as a former Christian minister who lost faith when her daughter and husband were killed doing missionary work in the Sudan, Katherine now investigates on supernaturally interpreted physical phenomena and applies blunt force scientific analysis to debunk the masses who are ready to see biblical images and references at the drop of a shroud. This is her new calling, and when small-town schoolteacher Doug Blackwell (David Morrissey) appears at one of her seminars to call her out, describing bizarre occurrences in the town of Haven that appear hell-sent -- the kind of phenomenon she thrives on -- we see that he's got her number. Immediately, she drops everything and is on the case.

With her backup and partner Ben (Idris Elba), she drives out to the woods and swamplands of Louisiana where a young girl has died and the river runs red with what appears to be blood. Samples are taken and reason is applied. While awaiting results from the lab, Katherine has a sighting of the girl, now thought to inhabit the marshes as some kind of devil in the making. As far as the town is concerned, Loren McConnell (AnnaSophia Robb) is the creepy little forest-dweller who's stirring up the horror goulash, aided and abetted by frenzied supporting scenes of superkinetic power gone mad (though the film is careful not to portray her as irredeemably evil since a transition to misunderstood child is a possibility).

Obviously, Katherine's take on it is less emotionally flamboyant, though she's at odds to prove the various phenomena occurring about them as purely natural. What the brethren of the town see as an evil child, she sees as a young girl thrown into isolation and sensing in the friendly scientific visitor someone she can trust.

It all degenerates into a jumble of realism and faith-induced biblical delirium to suggest dark celestial forces, but it comes down in the end to hawking the frights under the carnival tent. The lab results come back positive. It is blood in the river. It's 100% blood. No anomaly; no scientific saving of the day. What we need is redemption, which the climax more or less supplies as convincingly as the rest of it. We can all go home now and wait for the... whatever, comfortable in the facts that the dead people were all fabrications anyway and the sound and visual effects to keep our fear ducts energized were about as disgustingly artificial as a dinner turned into maggots.

As any good actress, Swank goes through it with all synapses of her intelligent mind responding to the Southern-gothic stimuli. The glory is in the way the camera exploits the physical blessings she provides (the babe is hot) and which cinematographer Peter Levy takes full advantage of in a markedly textural rendering of the darkness and mysteries of the swampy landscape. A nicely varied score, which ably adds its stimulation to the biblical horror brew, is by John Frizzell.

Ooops, nearly forgot: Stephen Rae makes an appearance as Father Costigan, not someone Katherine quite confesses to, but a priestly symbol to further the cause of a miraculous context.

Whether the agenda of this movie is to debunk the debunkers of the world, or is just another basis for the reaping of huge profits, the subject and state-of- the-art effects affords director Hopkins the chance to play god. He pulls out all the stops and goes for a slew of iconic shocks forged in the biblio-digital tool shed. In the end it's a stream of punishments and blessings a teenager can thrill to.

To movie-fans, on the other hand, the big question is, where does Swank go from here?

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  
 


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