The Reaping is the most atypical of what's been a largely undistinguished if not awful crop of horror films from Dark Castle, a production shingle that's been trying to establish itself as a brand name for producing edgy theatrical thrillers since 1999.
Unlike prior efforts like as Thirt13n Ghosts, Ghost Ship, and Gothika, The Reaping actually has a coherent script with a straightforward premise, middle, and grand finale, although it's more of a theological thriller than horror flick.
Writers Carey and Chad Hayes (House of Wax) have taken the popular premise of good battling evil amid a looming apocalypse, and reset the creepy chronology in a small Louisiana town, with a possible devil-worshiping sect out to help Satan create a new soldier. Borrowing some hokum from Exorcist II: The Heretic but keeping it local, the variation has the town threatened by the 10 deadly plagues that mucked up ancient Egypt , right down to the demise of all first-borns, with a local teen either positioned as Satan's right arm, or a powerful angel with a Teflon soul sent by God.
Roll in a Wicker Man thread – a reformed ex-priest (Hilary Swank) secretly lured by townspeople because of her lingering faith – and you have what seems like a decent hybrid. The first act is the most satisfying, since it relies on mounting weirdness that makes Swank doubt her anti-religious stance, and director Stephen Hopkins has the smarts to let his actors perform their roles with their own measured energy, and avoid the lame flash-cuts prior directors imposed on their films, as with the rubbish heap feardotcom (which, like Reaping, also co-starred Stephen Rea).
A case in point is a small scene that has Swank recalling the absence of a bracelet, which Hopkins allows to unfold not with psycho flash-cuts, but as a medium close-up on Swank as she recalls, reacts, and emotes varying levels of loss. It's a perfectly satisfying moment, and shows both actor and director trying to add substance to what's otherwise a slow-moving thriller with the usual good vs. evil head-butting. The problem with theological thrillers is that everything must lead towards a kind of Holy Battle, and while Hopkins has a modest budget and adequate special effects (including an unsettling locust assault) for his showpiece scenes, the middle bits are apt to be talky and full of theo-babble.
In the Omen films (or even in Stuart Urban's inept Revelation, a film paced with such impatience the whole puree is a laughable muddle), priests generally die badly, and their ends are part of the body-count sleaze that invigorate theological thrillers (or at least wake up audiences wanting some spilled blood and entrails) so it's extremely odd to see Hopkins and his editor, Colby Parker Jr., reduce Rea's fiery demise to a handful of shots, and severely compress character travels (like Swank's attempt to rescue her partner at a ruined cemetery).
One also gets the impression the script's outline was less theological, and after dialogue was beefed up, the narrative was re-written, adding bits of silly CGI shocks to keep horror fans still anxious until the locust assault and cemetery battle – basically the money sequences in the film's final act. Swank has one great speech scientifically explaining the cause and effect nature of the legendary 10 plagues (something furthered in an intriguing DVD featurette), and it shows the filmmakers were trying to transcend the limitations imposed by the film's taught budget.
Reducing the chief villain to a Satan-worshiping cult shrinks the scope of the final battle, but it also avoids the division theological thrillers can create: if you don't' believe in Satan or God, the whole story's a silly fantasy and becomes laughable (hence the need for blood, guts, and sleaze), but a local cult is a contemporary and tangible protagonist. It's still an undercooked thriller, but a good effort amid the poor qualitative results endemic to Dark Castle 's annual output.
Warner Bros.' DVD is a low-key release, with a few perfunctory featurettes, but no commentary track – a strange omission, given dreck like Thirt13n Ghosts or feardotcom has the directors discussing the wonders of their films in long, dull stretches of objective myopia.
The transfer is adequate, but one can see active compression and traveling grain, and while the sound mix contains the usual loud shocks typical of Hopkins, the dialogue is dialed way down; coupled with some too-tight edits, dialogue exchanges often fail to register or resonate, and while John Frizzell's score is one of his best for Dark Castle, the more complete cues on the soundtrack CD lead one to believe the film went through some serious tightening to keep the pacing fast, economical, and bring the running time to under 99 mins.
To read an interview with composer John Frizzell, click HERE.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan