By Pete Vonder Haar | April 6, 2007

“The Reaping” opens with a priest named Costigan (Stephen Rea) waking to the sight of a burning photo on his desk. On a hunch, he digs out other picturess of the same person. All are similarly charred, and when arrayed next to each other, the burns form a sinister looking symbol. Students of Greek mythology will recognize it as the sign of Cronus, father of Zeus. Fans of laser rock shows will recognize it as the symbol used by Blue Oyster Cult, which can be taken as either a good or a bad omen for the rest of the movie, depending on your fondness for “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.”

And I guarantee some critic somewhere is going to use the line, “Don’t fear ‘The Reaping’” in his or her review.

The defaced subject in each picture is one Katherine Winter (Hilary Swank). An ex-missionary, Katherine turned away from the path after a Bad Thing happened to her husband and daughter while the family was doing the Lord’s work in Sudan (those with even a passing knowledge of that country’s recent history can probably hazard a good guess as to the nature of the tragedy). Ever since, she and her friend/former student Ben (Idris Elba) have traveled the world as a sort of religious mythbusting team, investigating so-called “miraculous” events and rooting out the inevitable rational scientific explanation.

A visit from handsome schoolteacher Doug (David Morrissey) convinces her to make a trip to his hometown of Haven, Louisiana, which has been visited by what appears to be one of the plagues of Egypt. In this case, the local river has turned to blood following the mysterious death of a local boy. Doug asks Katherine to look for a rational cause, the better to dissuade the superstitious townsfolk from stringing up the boy’s sister Loren (AnnaSophia Robb), whose family are rumored to be in league with Satan.

Katherine and Ben dutifully set off for Haven to check it out (she teaches at LSU, so one assumes it’s a short drive). Sure enough, there’s a big a*s river of blood. Not only that, but other plagues start hitting the town shortly thereafter (frogs, flies, and diseased livestock, for openers). The more she investigates, the more Katherine uncovers about the town and about the presence of the alleged satanic cult. Can she unravel the mystery before the loving and merciful God smites every firstborn child? Is Loren an agent of Satan or a mean m***********g servant of God? And most importantly, can a black sidekick survive to the end of a horror movie?

I wanted to like “The Reaping,” I really did, even knowing it was written by the twin brother team that brought us the “House of Wax” remake and directed by Stephen Hopkins, the guy responsible for the historically awful “Lost in Space.” Religious-themed horror used to be a fairly respectable sub-genre, as demonstrated by movies like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist,” and is in desperate need of a reboot after the likes of “Constantine” and “The Exorcist: The Beginning.” The prospect of an Old Testament deity opening a six-goblet of whoop a*s and raining holy fire on blasphemers and idolaters on the big screen is pretty tasty, and rife with potential for nifty special effects. Finally, I wanted to see Elba – who played Stringer Bell in HBO’s superlative “The Wire” – get the stench of Tyler Perry’s “Daddy’s Little Girls” off of him by appearing in a decent movie.

Fortunately, six years of George W. Bush’s presidency have prepared me for disappointment. “The Reaping” starts off pleasantly enough, following Katherine and Ben on their quest to debunk an apparent miracle in Chile and putting forth the perfectly rational proposition that religion is a load of hooey. Something’s a little off, however. Katherine is a bit too shrill in her denouncements and would rather hang up on Costigan than debate him when he tries to warn her about her impending doom. You know, deep down, she’s just looking for an excuse to go back to quoting Scripture.

And the CGI is bad. Like, “Escape from L.A.” bad. The “river of blood” looks more like a river of Kool-Aid, as no one in the film’s production seems to have ever heard that old “thicker than water” chestnut. And rather than just paint and tip a few real cows, they apparently hired somebody with an Associates Degree in computer animation from DeVry.

Finally, anyone who decides they want to shoot a movie in the South should be required to spend some time here first. There are more than two types of domiciles in these parts, though Hopkins would have you believe everyone south of the Mason-Dixon Line lives in a) filthy clapboard shacks, or b) decaying plantation homes. Granted, Louisiana’s hard to beat for modern Gothic creepiness, but most places do have central air.

“The Reaping” isn’t a total failure. Swank is never less than competent (though between this and “The Core” maybe she just accepts every third script that comes her way), Elba holds his own, and Morrissey has a nice Liam Neeson-by-way-of-Anthony Clark thing going. But the movie itself is virtually nonsensical. The set-up falls apart when the inevitable twist is finally revealed, and the film’s naked pandering to Christian moviegoers makes no sense when you consider how unlikely they are to shell out money for an R-rated horror movie.

One that doesn’t consist of Jesus getting the s**t beat out of him for two hours, that is.

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