The Reeking
By Noel Vera

The Reaping
Dir: Stephen Hopkins (2007)

Stephen Hopkins' brand new horror flick has a simple enough premise: the ten plagues visited upon Egypt are being inflicted on the small town of Haven, Louisiana, possibly because of the influence of a devilish young girl named Loren (AnnaSophia Robb); former missionary turned miracle debunker Katherine Winter (Hilary Swank, doing some serious slumming) arrives skeptical in the little town, ready to find a scientific explanation for all this.

There are plenty of reasons to dislike this movie, but perhaps the strongest is the cheap way the picture tries to cash in on the recent trend in faith-based filmmaking--"Oh, look at how much boxoffice apocalyptic pictures and most of all "The Passion of the Christ" are making! And look how much more we can make if we have an Oscar-winning actress in the lead, and a pretty young girl as the source of evil ("Rosemary's Baby," "The Omen," "Village of the Damned," "The Bad Seed," etc.). Throw in the ten plagues digitally re-enacted (See frogs drop out of the sky! See rivers turned into blood!), and we're talking big money!"

Right. Along the way we learn that Katherine lost her faith (we're treading into William Peter Blatty territory, here) because of the death of her husband and child in Sudan--a drought had started around the time they had arrived, their very presence there had been blamed, and her husband and child were sacrificed to appease the gods.

Right--not only are we asked to believe that God has taken a more overt role in changing weather (hail, darkness, flames) and ecosystems (plagues of frogs, lice, and locusts), we're also asked to blame those damned ignorant Sudanese for the loss of this poor woman's faith (And where on earth did those barbarians get the idea of killing her child? Sudan is predominantly Muslim and that religion isn't exactly known for its child sacrifices (despite what Christian nutcases might tell you)). No mention of the recent violence in Sudan, all of which is directed at fellow countrymen--movie audiences don't care about the thousands of black children killed, only the one white one offered to pagan gods.

Swank wades hip-deep into the muck laughingly called a story; she's as game as always, whether in a masochistic transgendered role ("Boys Don't Cry," 1999) or a masochistic boxing martyr role ("Million Dollar Baby," 2004), but try as she might, she can't sell this cheesefest very well--probably no one can (she was fun in "The Black Dahlia" (2006)l--a film I liked very much--but you couldn't quite buy her as a femme fatale, either).

Actor-filmmaker David Morrissey as Doug, Katherine's local contact, fares better: with his quiet line delivery and the slight knot of concern fixed on his brow you can imagine either he's worried but very good at hiding it, or very good at faking worry. There's a charm to him, a becoming reserve or modesty that's appealing, the same there's a quality behind that reserve that's irreducibly creepy (either that or I'm really scraping bottom to find something--anything--free of hysterics in this picture).

Idris Elba pretty much functions as the film's Magic Negro--caring, reliable, absolutely disposable black friend with unshakeable faith and absolutely no sex life (Swank makes free with Morrissey in what turns out to be a dream sequence (or is it?), but her relationship with Elba is purely platonic); AnnaSophia Robb is suitably impassive as Loren (not much of a performance, but she's really just a movie prop with legs); Stephen Rea chews scenery entertainingly as Father Costigan, the movie's increasingly hysterical Catholic priest who does all the worrying from a distance, racking up cell phone minutes like there was no tomorrow (he basically channels Rod Steiger from "The Amityville Horror," giving Steiger's schtick a classier sheen).

Director Stephen Hopkins (he was the man responsible for "The Ghost and the Darkness" (1996), and the film adaptation of "Lost in Space" (1998)--yes, you may wonder: why wasn't he lynched then?)) seems to believe that the louder the music and sound effects the more terrifying the picture, and that people are truly frightened by shaky handheld camera footage (are we supposed to worry that the actors might get knocked over?) chopped up into incomprehensible fragments, MTV-style.

He steals shamelessly from all kinds of movies--"Psycho," of course; "Rosemary's Baby," of course; "The Evil Dead" movies; the original "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (a standard resource for fright flicks set in the South); even Michael Bay's "Armageddon" ("Gee, momma--looka all the fake-lookin meteorites!") isn't immune to ravaging. The only real scare in the picture for me, though, was the plague of maggots--all that beautiful grilled seafood ruined, just like that.

O, for a Professor Quatermass to take over matters midway, and a Nigel Kneale to guide him! Kneale had his fictional scientist battling monsters and devil figures, but setting all the poltergeist noises and flying dishes aside, his explanations were rational and ultimately more persuasive--government conspiracies, say, or man's genetic disposition towards violence.

Sure he threw alien races into the mix, substituting science fiction for religious fantasy, but there's an inventiveness to his speculations that I liked, a way of putting things together that actually seemed coherent, possessed of an inner logic, fitting neatly into the plot without lazily resorting to God or The Devil suspending the laws of nature (In "Quatermass and the Pit" Kneale explains the Devil, Original Sin, and racial cleansing (a phrase that has sadly become more, not less, relevant in recent years) in a single brilliant premise).

Kneale would often start with gothic horror trappings--he knew how to get more thrills out of a miniscule budget than Hopkins with his battery of tired digital effects could imagine possible--but his horrors are ultimately explicable through intelligence, not hysteria, and are fought with quick thinking, not blind, unreasoning faith.

This movie is harder to explain--call it the unholy union of insatiable greed with invincible contempt, guided by a consummate lack of talent and imagination. God visited the Egyptians with ten terrible plagues; the filmmakers sent us this movie--overall, I'd say the Egyptians got the better deal.

Note: First published in Businessworld, 04/13/07.
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April 27, 2007