'The Reaping' sows seeds of horror

The seeds of most Biblical horror movies are sown in the Book of Revelations; "The Reaping" at least gets marks for originality for springing from Exodus.

The film is anchored by Hilary Swank's strong performance as Katherine, a Louisiana State University professor and former minister whose expertise is the debunking of "miracles." The actress skillfully balances hard-headed cynicism with emotional wounds that a lesser performer might play ham-handedly.

Katherine is called to investigate when an isolated bayou town's river apparently turns to blood — just as in the Old Testament story of the 10 Plagues of Egypt. The professor and her assistant, Ben (Idris Elba, HBO's "The Wire"), are at a loss when the rest of the plagues — frogs, dead livestock, etc. — seem to follow.

The locals blame a spooky 12-year-old girl (AnnaSophia Robb, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"), fairly sharpening pitchforks and lighting torches for action unless Katherine can solve the mystery before all hell breaks loose. Perhaps literally.

The tension between reasoned skepticism and ingrained belief is key to "The Reaping," but the tug-of-war is lopsided here. The film scores with its scientific analysis of spiritual phenomena, especially Katherine's deconstruction of Exodus; it loses some traction as things get weirder.

Director Stephen Hopkins (HBO's "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers") relies too much on people jumping out of cupboards to get scares. He does, however, allow most of the violence to be implied rather than shown, and keeps things moving crisply and creepily.

The special effects are alternately a help (the plague of locusts is a showstopper) and a hindrance (a statue's shadow transforms unconvincingly; the blood river doesn't really look like blood). But the production and sound design, by Graham "Grace" Walker and Gregory Hedgepath, respectively, are definite assets.

There are hiccups in the plot, such as the rushed explanation of why these plagues — presumably instruments of God — would be visited on good people, and the ending is convoluted. The writers mix and match their mythology, but if you're in this audience you're probably no stickler for definitude. That the town is called Haven is likewise not a good sign for the script.

"The Reaping" is hardly a great film, but it's a worthy genre entry and certainly better than most recent horror movies — thanks mostly to its lead. If it's not quite the commercial vehicle Swank deserves, it figures to be the most prominent entertainment about a town beset by Biblical plagues since "Magnolia" or TV's "The Simple Life."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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