As I’ve watched horror films over the years, I’ve seen a lot of inspirations for the antagonists. There are threats from insanity (slashers), threats from technology (mad scientists), threats from wronged nature (Godzilla), threats from the supernatural (any number of paranormal films), and even a few threats of biblical origin. The Reaping falls into the last category; as with The Abominable Dr. Phibes, it draws upon the ten plagues of Egypt, as detailed in Exodus, for its inspiration. Unlike that Vincent Price vehicle, however, the plagues in The Reaping do not have a mad scientist at their origin; they appear to genuinely be supernatural.
But appearances aren’t everything, which is where Hilary Swank comes into this Stephen Hopkins picture. Swank plays a former minister turned professional skeptic, a professor who travels the world debunking miracles and supernatural events. When David Morrissey tells her of a small town that seems to be undergoing the biblical plagues, she and her assistant (Idris Elba) head in to find out what’s really going on.
There’s a lot to be said in The Reaping‘s favor. The special effects are, while generally not overdone, convincing in their effectiveness. And Hopkins doesn’t try to oversell it early on. He knows a river of blood is gruesome to look at, but not worthy of a jump scare, at least not when you know it’s just sitting there. In fact, despite its horror movie categorization, this is a film that primarily goes for a sense of “eerie” over “scary”. Nobody who can handle a standard action film should worry about getting nightmares from this film; it’s not trying for that.
Instead, it tries to gradually increase emotional tension and a sense of the bizarre as matters progress. And with the townsfolk becoming increasingly nervous, and increasingly ready to blame an isolated young girl (AnnaSophia Robb) as the source of their woes, it mostly succeeds on that. Swank, of course, is determined to save the girl by finding a rational explanation for everything before a lynch mob forms. But the more things happen, the more supernatural they appear to be.
There are a few problems with the film, though. The first is that we really only have a couple characters to care about, and we already know what the main character’s emotional arc is going to look like. (Ex-preacher turned atheist? Hmm… what are the writers going to do with her?) Second, and I admit this is a minor point, is that it does get its details wrong on its biblical references. At one point, a character states the plagues are happening one after another in the exact order as they unfold in the Bible, and that this cannot be a coincidence. Yet in fact they aren’t in order. It’s a very minor thing, and I wouldn’t have noticed, let alone been bothered by it, if they hadn’t brought it up. But they did bring it up.
The last issue is a little bit spoilerish, and I won’t say exactly what it is, but just discussing it a little may constitute a spoiler as it has to do with the ending. Like a lot of horror films, there’s a last-minute twist at the end, and like a lot of horror films, it adds a sense that things aren’t truly over. In this case, it feels a bit like a kick in the teeth. It not only gives the whole thing a certain sense of futility, but it feels as if it undermines the central message that the film makes — if all parts up until then are considered. A last minute “still a threat” twist works in a lot of horror films, but it doesn’t feel right in this film.
Even so, despite those issues, The Reaping is still a reasonably entertaining film, and might be particularly suited for people who want something that’s just a little bit dark and supernatural for Halloween without going for the truly intense scares.