Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on April 6, 2007, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.
The Reaping promises a big Biblical apocalypse horror story filled with literal fire and brimstone—which it does indeed deliver—but some of its best moments are the subtle prefaces to key scenes. In an early sequence, a priest named Father Costigan (Stephen Rea) sees a tiny, fiery light glowing in the darkness of his room, and the revelation of its source packs a nice little shiver. Later, as heroine Katherine Winter (Hilary Swank) explores a rundown home whose occupants may hold the key to Old Testament-esque plagues that are, um, plaguing a Louisiana town, a swarm of locusts descends upon the area—and the full-scale insect attack is presaged by a series of quietly creepy shots where Katherine sees the bugs blotting out the light coming through windows and semi-opaque doors.
Like many of the chillers produced by Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis’ Dark Castle Entertainment, The Reaping has a number of strong qualities but doesn’t quite knock one out of the park. But like several of the company’s prior productions, it has an Oscar winner in its lead to give the proceedings some heft. As Katherine, Swank brings conviction to the role—though not a religious one, as her character has devoted her life to exposing phenomena that are purportedly either God or the devil’s work. Once a Christian missionary, she abandoned her faith after something dreadful apparently happened to her family during a stay in Africa (as revealed in overly busy flashbacks), and she’s first seen in a digitally enhanced South American city proving that what appears to be demonic infestation is actually the result of local corruption.
Upon her return home, she is visited by teacher Doug Blackwell (a nicely understated David Morrissey), who hails from the isolated village of Haven, where those 10 plagues have begun materializing, starting with the local river apparently turning to blood. Katherine and her cameraman Ben (Idris Elba) arrive just in time to witness a rain of frogs and then, that night, the death of livestock; Doug opens his house to the pair and cooks up some home barbecue that’s quickly visited by an infestation of flies. The devout locals believe that God is punishing them with these afflictions, and their suspicions of the cause have fallen on a local family living in that dilapidated house out in the woods—specifically on their pretty/spooky young daughter Loren (AnnaSophia Robb)—whom they believe are in league with dark forces.
Director Stephen Hopkins and scripters Carey W. and Chad Hayes (working from an original screenplay by Brian Rousso) play all this with a straight face that matches Katherine’s initial unwavering belief that there’s a reasonable scientific explanation for these events. (Swank has a well-delivered monologue in which she rationalizes the original Egyptian “plagues.”) And their treatment of religion largely avoids exploitation; the town’s residents, including an unrecognizable William (Fright Night) Ragsdale as the sheriff and John McConnell as the blustery mayor, may seem a little blinkered by their fervor, but they aren’t played as one-dimensional yokels. Particularly refreshing is how Elba’s Ben, who does have the faith, functions not as a typical African-American sidekick spouting tension-puncturing wisecracks but as a sounding board for Katherine’s atheism. Lending visual weight to the movie’s themes is the lush photography of Peter Levy, who proves you can lend a movie plenty of atmosphere without draining the images of color.
For all the escalating seriousness of the situation, however, The Reaping simply isn’t very scary. The plagues are more visually striking than threatening, resulting in more “oooohhhh!” than “eeeek!” moments, and other fright tactics—including those employed in Rea’s subplot, which feels very much as if it was beefed up during postproduction to augment both the exposition and the thrill factor—are derived straight from the well-worn occult-chiller handbook. The movie never entirely loses its grip, but nor does it truly quicken the pulse; instead it maintains a low-key hum of tension punctuated by occasional jump-scares and supported by its central performances (including a fine, mostly wordless turn by young Robb).
So is God really punishing Haven, are the plagues actually Satan’s work or is it all just weird natural science? As Katherine breaks through to the initially frightened and resistant Loren and begins to see the child more as victim than villain, she comes to suspect that there’s more going on than meets the eye, and the audience, of course, will be way ahead of her. As in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which also presented a clash between logical and theological belief systems, The Reaping’s very status as a horror film makes it clear which school of thought will be supported by the final revelations—which also means, of course, that there must be a twist coming. I won’t even hint at what happens during the finale, but suffice it to say that the film bends over backwards like a prostrating fundamentalist to throw its plot curveballs, which don’t wind up entirely making sense. And it closes with a final whammy that explicitly recalls a past occult classic—again, I won’t give away which one. But it does drive home the feeling that The Reaping had a shot at taking a place alongside previous supernatural masterworks, and what’s good about it is good enough that it’s a shame it doesn’t achieve a genre state of grace overall.