Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Film Review | The Reaping (2007)

When your horror film bases itself around one supernatural concept, particularly one based in religion, generally you need to go down one of two routes. Either you establish from the start that, yes, something other-worldly is afoot and extrapolate all your scares and plot devices around that (The Omen being a key example of this); or you choose to keep your audience guessing, hinting that the answer to whatever is going bump in the night can either be explained through science or a series of plausible events or could equally be something genuinely not of this realm, only revealing which it is at the very end, or maybe keeping things ambiguous even after the credits roll (El Orfanato provides a suitable demonstration here). Deviation from these tried and tested routes can produce pleasing results, but is a road which must be trodden carefully. Otherwise you end up with The Reaping.

After introducing Katherine (Hilary Swank) and Ben (Idris Elba) as a pair of university colleagues who specialise in debunking supposed miracles, the story takes them to the small town of Haven when Doug Blackwell (David Morrissey), one of the town's inhabitants, asks them to investigate why the local river has turned red. As Katherine and Ben investigate, more curious phenomena occur including frogs falling from the sky and mass death of cattle herds, complicating matters further and leading the locals to believe they are experiencing an onset of Biblical plagues.

The Reaping has a few features going for it. The cast are strong and do the best they can with the material available. Swank and Elba are a believable platonic pair and provide a good foundation upon which the film can be built; it is when they spend more and more time separate from each other as the film progresses that many of the cracks in other areas become very apparent. Morrissey is sound but miscast, as his southern states accent is terrible to the point of distraction. Unfortunately, once you've managed to get used to the way he's talking around two thirds in, his character, along with the rest of the film, takes a dramatic turn for the worst.

Structurally, The Reaping is a complete mess. After a promising beginning full of religion versus science, the second act entangles itself in backstories, dreams, hallucinations and local lore distancing the audience from the relatively strong opening. Motivations become unclear, character arcs become confused or are forgotten completely (Elba's Ben goes from potentially interesting to woefully one-dimensional). Tired horror tropes get thrown into the mix with no reason behind them. The whole thing stumbles with where to go next.

Which leads to the final act. After spending around an hour building up the ambiguity and tension over whether the apparent plagues hitting Haven can be explained through scientific methods or whether there is something more supernatural about them, the film suddenly chooses to remove any uncertainty, making things much less interesting in a manner that is at best underwhelming, at worst a slap in the face to the audience. From this point on, things go further and further downhill. Characters begin behaving completely at odds with what we've seen previously, and previously established ideas are carelessly dispatched with. There is one unexpected turn which, had it not been preceded by so much schlock, could actually have been quite interesting, but it's one of a crowd of twists, far too many for the film to be able to handle at this stage. We end up with a finale so overblown and ludicrous it's almost laughable.

Possibly the most frustrating thing of all about The Reaping is that, after the credits rolled and I thought back over what I'd just watched, I came to the conclusion that the concept behind it is actually not bad at all as religious horror goes. With a half decent script and a director with some idea of what to do, alongside the able cast already in place, The Reaping could have been a worthwhile film. Instead, this is one of the sloppiest and most worthless horror films I've watched for some time.


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