Directed By: Stephen Hopkins
Starring: Hilary Swank, David Morrissey, Idris Elba, AnnaSophia Robb, Stephen Rea
In "The Reaping", Hilary Swank plays Katherine Winter, an academic who investigates claims of paranormal phenomena, particularly those that are tied to religious miracles. Katherine, a former religious missionary and ordained minister, is a cynical non-believer with a perfect debunking record. When the small New Orleans town of Haven begins to experience a series of events reminiscent of the Egyptian plagues from the book of Exodus, and Doug (Morrissey), one of Haven's leading citizens requests her involvement, Katherine agrees to investigate, bringing along her colleague and former protégé Ben (Idris Elba). The events seem to be centering on a young girl named Loren McConnell (Robb) whose brother recently died under mysterious circumstances coincident with the start of the plagues, and the townspeople seem increasing willing to form an angry mob to attack her. Katherine races to develop a scientific explanation before this can happen, as flashbacks reveal parallels to how Katherine lost her own child. When her former mentor, Father Costigan (Rea), tells her details of a religious prophecy that eerily parallels the events in Haven, Katherine begins to question whether she has been working on the side of the angels.
"The Reaping" seems like it really wanted to scare me and blow my mind, but it goes about its business in such a poorly executed fashion that all it managed to do was bore me and waste my time. Having seen occasional reports of various troubles the film had in production (location filming in Louisiana in late Summer 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit), and post-production (it's theatrical release was eight months after its originally scheduled debut, and a lot of re-editing was apparently involved), I was actually rooting for it to be good. With that in mind, I will start out with the positive and say that the production designers and special effects team did a good job recreating the various plagues. The river of blood and locusts were realized on-screen particularly impressively. The location photography, augmented by some heavy digital grading to keep things from looking too pretty/lush, is also very accomplished. Supporting actors Idris Elba and AnnaSophia Robb are effective in their somewhat thankless roles as the devoted assistant and the creepy young girl.
Now that I have exhausted the positives, I will highlight some of what is wrong with the movie. At the top of the list is the overuse of scary movie "stingers". Director Hopkins and his editors seem obliged to stick one in every 3-5 minutes, always telegraphing them via unnecessarily tight framing and suddenly sustained notes in the music score and following them with a coda of loud noises and quick-cuts. A few of these can go a long way in a scary movie, but the gimmick becomes an annoyance with overuse.
The story is also unimaginatively structured, seeming like an awkward assemblage of elements from several better movies (which I will not list at the risk of creating some indirect spoilers). Rea's character is used as little more than an exposition machine culminating in a startlingly non-cryptic prophecy that lays everything out for the film's conclusion and revelations. The more you think about what occurs during Rea's final scene in the movie, the less sense it will make. To her credit Swank makes a game effort, handling scenes where she is doing little more than spouting the writers' research with aplomb. Unfortunately, she never really comes across as troubled and damaged as her gradually revealed back-story suggests she should be. Morrissey employs an unconvincing rural Louisiana accent throughout that undermines his performance at every turn. If you are into damning with faint praise, I will say that he gives a better performance here than he did in "Basic Instinct 2".
The film is presented on a DVD-10 "flipper" disc (double sided/single layer) with a 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 transfer on one side and a reformatted 4:3 presentation on the other. For the purpose of this review, I will pretend that the 4:3 version does not exist. The 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 transfer is generally solid. The cinematography has been heavily manipulated by digital grading, which makes it occasionally difficult to assess since it is rarely going for a "natural" look. Black levels go deep, and shadow detail is good. Edge enhancement is minimal to non-existent. There are definitely some compression artifacts due to fitting the entire film and all of the extras onto a single DVD layer, but they were not as severe as I have seen in some other recent Warner "flippers".
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is very active and dynamic. The aforementioned "stinger" moments are like dynamic range test signals going from relatively quiet to extremely loud with lots of activity in all six channels. The sound field is impressively dimensional and immersive, with the plague of locusts sequence being a good candidate for surround sound demo material.
When the disc is first spun up, the following skippable promotional trailers begin playing automatically. All are presented in 4:3 video with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound unless otherwise indicated: "Michael Clayton", "Gametap" Video Game Site, "I Am Legend", "Believers", "Return to House on Haunted Hill" (16:9 enhanced).
From the disc's "Special Features" proper menu, the following featurettes are accessible. All are presented in 16:9 enhanced video with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. They all appear severely bit-starved with lots of compression artifacts, but I suppose I would rather have this than stealing even more bits from the video stream of the actual film presentation
"Science of the Ten Plagues" runs fifteen minutes and 59 seconds. Rather than focusing on the film itself, this featurette concerns theories by scientific and religious scholars about the ten plagues as described in the Book of Exodus. Interview participants include Old Testament Professor Terence Fretheim, Chair of Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion R. Joseph Hoffmann, Paranormal Investigator/Skeptical Inquirer Joe Nickel, Epidemiologist Dr. John S. Marr, Material Sciences Professor Colin Humphreys, and Director of the Benfield UCL Hazard Research Center Professor Bill McGuire. They espouse various theories about how the ten plagues could have unfolded, some tied to the large volcanic eruption of Santorini that would have occurred just prior to when the biblical events are believed to have taken place. This amounts to a fifteen minute outlay of research that was turned into a quickly-delivered expository monologue for Swank's character in the film.
"The Characters" runs six minutes and 59 seconds, and, none too surprisingly, concerns itself with the four main characters in the film, with clips, behind the scenes footage, and interview segments with Swank, Producer Herb Gains, Writer Brian Rousso, Morrissey, Elba, Hopkins, Robb, and Producer Joel Silver.
"A Place Called Haven" runs five minutes and two seconds, and focuses on one of the film's true strengths: its excellent use of locations. The interruption in the film's production due to Hurricane Katrina is also touched on briefly. Film clips and behind the scenes footage are accompanied by interview segments with Rousso, Production Designer Bruce Walker, Swank, Location Manager Peter Novak, and Silver. This is my favorite featurette on the disc, but I wish it ran a little longer.
"The Reaping: The Seventh Plague" runs a spartan one minute and eight seconds. At the risk of spoiling it for you, I will tell you that the only bits of information contained in this featurette are that Idris Elba does not like bugs and that the First Assistant Director put one in his mouth on a dare (footage included).
In addition to these documented features, there is also an "Easter Egg" that can be accessed as follows: From the "Special Features" Menu, select "Main Menu" and then press right arrow to highlight an insect. Press "enter", and you will be treated to "Back Seat Swamp" in which AnnaSophia Robb reads a scary story she wrote on the set of "The Reaping" with occasionally illustrative filmed segments.
The DVD-10 flipper disc is packaged in a standard sized Amaray-style case with an appropriately creepy image of AnnaSophia Robb with a snake and lots of locusts on the front cover. The disc is in turn packaged in a cardboard slipcover that reproduces the cover image with embossment and foil enhancements. Kudos to the folks in marketing for including an image that gives one the flavor of the movie rather than simply a huge picture of Hilary Swank's head. All of the special features are reproduced on both sides of the disc.
"The Reaping" is a mildly diverting, highly derivative, and ultimately disappointing horror film presented on DVD with a modest set of extras and an acceptable 16:9 enhanced video transfer hamstrung somewhat by forcing all of the content on to a single layered side of a DVD-10 flipper disc. The audio presentation is quite good, and the extras are mildly interesting, although far from comprehensive.