By Noel Vera
Dir: Stephen Hopkins (2007)
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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
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.
First published in Businessworld, 04/13/07.
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