Few recent studio horror pictures have courted (or, depending on one's perspective, pandered to) a Christian audience as blatantly as "The Reaping." This lurid, often ludicrously entertaining slab of Biblesploitation builds an earnest case for spirituality in a skeptical age.

Few recent studio horror pictures have courted (or, depending on one’s perspective, pandered to) a Christian audience as blatantly as “The Reaping.” Revisiting the book of Exodus in a feverish Southern-gothic context, this lurid, often ludicrously entertaining slab of Biblesploitation builds an earnest case for spirituality in a skeptical age. As demonstrated by the thematically similar “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” there’s an audience for this kind of faith-based sensationalism, and the chance to see righteous acts of Old Testament payback spectacularly re-enacted on the bigscreen should help Warner Bros. reap solid theatrical turnout, with an even richer ancillary harvest.

From a commercial standpoint, it’s entirely understandable (if sadly telling) that the horror film has become Hollywood’s primary vehicle for addressing matters of faith. Still, even among the religio-horror ranks, “The Reaping” stands out for its bold advertising (“What hath God wrought?” scream the posters) and its loony conviction as it rains down all 10 of the biblical plagues — frogs, lice, boils et al. — on a small Louisiana backwater town called Haven.

With the ostensibly God-fearing locals whipped into hysterics, schoolteacher Doug Blackwell (David Morrissey) enlists the aid of university professor Katherine Winter (Hilary Swank), who sees it as her mission to investigate and debunk “miracles” with scientific explanations.

So when Katherine arrives in Haven with devoutly religious partner Ben (Idris Elba) and finds the river has turned blood-red, she immediately begins speculating about pH imbalances and toxins in the water. But the villagers blame a clan of alleged devil-worshippers living in the nearby woods, specifically their young daughter, Loren (the gifted AnnaSophia Robb).

While the script by brothers Chad and Carey Hayes (“House of Wax”) gives nonbeliever Katherine some rhetorical ammo — her fiercely rational explanation for the Egyptian plagues is certainly something to hear — it’s obvious that this stone-hearted skeptic will be on her knees before the movie’s over. Crudely inserted flashbacks reveal that Katherine was once a missionary in the Sudan, but turned her back on God after her husband and daughter were murdered.

Working with visual effects supervisor Richard Yuricich, helmer Stephen Hopkins (“The Life and Death of Peter Sellers”) is clearly having fun staging modern-day acts of God (or is it Satan?) on a CG-enhanced widescreen canvas. Never mind rivers turning red; Cecil B. DeMille would’ve turned green to see this stuff. Most artfully visualized is the plague of locusts, first viewed from inside a house as the windows ominously darken, the computerized critters crawling about in a state of eerie calm before the inevitable frenzied attack.

Trouble is, plagues fall more in the realm of spectacle than scares, and to crank up the fright factor, pic resorts to the standard cheap thrills: cold-sweat nightmares, creaking doors, candles that mysteriously burn out, etc.

Other plot elements — ominous Third World interludes, a priest (Stephen Rea) who tries to warn Katherine Before It’s Too Late, whisperings about the long-awaited spawn of Satan — can’t help but conjure ill-advised comparisons to any number of horror classics including “The Exorcist,” “The Omen” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” And for all its high-minded aspirations, “The Reaping” really shows its cards in the final reels, with a descent into visual bombast and spiritual chaos that is almost riveting in its silliness.

Born to play tough, unflinching heroines, Swank resists the temptation to turn Katherine’s atheism into an easy irritant, instead portraying her as someone who quietly respects the beliefs of others even as she’s lost her own. Still, the character’s prodigal journey is so circumscribed from the outset — and Swank’s own bid for B.O. success in a genre vehicle is so transparent — that very little she does here feels spontaneous or surprising, save for a few warmly maternal flashes that emerge in her interactions with Robb (who was long overdue for a terrifying-tot role).

Swampy Louisiana locales give pic more color and sweaty atmosphere than most horror-thrillers, while Peter Levy’s wavering handheld camerawork adds some tension. In addition to being packed with the usual sudden jolts and guttural shrieks, the soundtrack makes lyrically inventive use of wind chimes.

The Reaping

Production

A Warner Bros. release, presented in association with Village Roadshow Pictures, of a Dark Castle Entertainment production. Produced by Joel Silver, Robert Zemeckis, Susan Downey, Herbert W. Gains. Executive producers, Erik Olsen, Steve Richards, Bruce Berman. Co-producer, Richard Mirisch. Directed by Stephen Hopkins. Screenplay, Carey W. Hayes, Chad Hayes; story, Brian Rousso.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Peter Levy; editor, Colby Parker Jr.; music, John Frizzell; production designer, Graham "Grace" Walker; art director, Scott Ritenour; set designer, Jeff Adams; set decorator, Chris Spellman; costume designer, Jeffrey Kurland; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Pud Cusack; sound designer/supervising sound editor, Gregory Hedgepath; re-recording mixers, John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff, David Campbell; visual effects supervisor, Richard Yuricich; visual effects, Double Negative, CIS Hollywood, Digiscope, Svengali Effects, Peerless Camera Co.; stunt coordinator, Steven Ritzi; associate producer, Kate Garwood; assistant director, Cliff Lanning; casting, Lora Kennedy. Reviewed at AMC Century City 15, Los Angeles, March 24, 2007. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 98 MIN.

With

Katherine - Hilary Swank Doug - David Morrissey Ben - Idris Elba Loren McConell - AnnaSophia Robb Father Costigan - Stephen Rea
With: William Ragsdale, John McConnell, David Jensen, Yvonne Landry, Samuel Garland, Myles Cleveland, Andrea Frankle, Mark Lynch.
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