Thursday, October 20, 2011

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #8: The Reaping

According to Exodus (chapters five to eleven inclusive) ten plagues were visited upon Egypt. The Egyptians assumed that God was a mite pissed off at them.

According to Katherine Winter (Hilary Swank), an erstwhile minister who now debunks religious phenomena, “In 1400 B.C., a group of nervous Egyptians saw the Nile turn red. But what they thought was blood was actually an algae bloom which killed the fish, which prior to that had been living off the eggs of frogs. Those uneaten eggs turned into record numbers of baby frogs who subsequently fled to the land and died. Their little rotting frog bodies attracted lice and flies. The lice carried the bluetongue virus, which killed 70% of Egypt’s livestock. The flies carried glanders, a bacterial infection which in humans causes boils. Soon afterwards, the Nile River Valley was hit with a three-day sandstorm otherwise known as the plague of darkness. During a sandstorm, intense heat can combine with an approaching cold front to create not only hail but also electrical storms which would have looked to the ancient Egyptians like fire from the sky. The subsequent wind would have blown the Ethiopian locust population off course and right into downtown Cairo. Hail is wet; locusts leave droppings. Spread both on grain, and you’ve got mycotoxins. Dinnertime in ancient Egypt meant the first-born child got the biggest portion which in this case meant he ate the most toxins, so he died. Ten plagues. Ten scientific explanations.”

Katherine has been asked by university colleague Doug (David Morrissey) to visit his hometown of Haven, a smiley and slightly-too-polite little place in the Louisiana Bible belt where an intolerant redneck mentality bubbles away just beneath the surface. It’s here that Loren (AnnaSophia Robb), the creepy daughter of a local outcast, is at the centre of a series of inexplicable events that are shaping up into a contemporary re-enactment of the plagues. Doug’s worried that Haven will invite the wrong kind of publicity and trusts to Katherine and her research assistant Ben (Idris Elba) to unearth a rational explanation.

They arrive to a river whose waters have turned red. Lab result: blood. Ben witnesses a fall of frogs from the sky. Lice and flies attack a barbeque at the run-down colonial house where Doug is putting up Katherine and Ben, and where a mutual attraction is simmering away between Doug and Katherine. But before things can get too lovey-dovey, more plague-like activity is taking place, livestock keeling over and dying even though DNA samples indicate there’s nothing wrong with them. Katherine experiences strange dreams/hallucinations, as well as flashbacks to her disastrous experience as a minister in Africa, the fallout from which led her to turn her back on the church. Then there’s some spooky business involving her former mentor, Father Costigan (Stephen Rea), who comes to believe that Katherine is in danger.

Met with inexplicable indifference on its release, Stephen Hopkins’s ‘The Reaping’ is a gripping and atmospheric chiller that wrings maximum atmosphere from its small town setting (Haven has a David-Lynch-in-the-bayou kind of vibe) and benefits from a cluster of solid, understated performances. Swank plays Katherine as a skeptic with a margin for ambivalence, her logical and reasonable outlook skewed just enough by the vulnerability of her personal experience that she comes off as a rounded and sympathetic character rather than the Agent Scully clone she could easily have become in lesser hands. Rea’s hangdog look is employed effectively, his world-weary priest stumbling onto something cosmically bigger than he is equipped to deal with. Elba is also very good, conveying the calmness which belies Ben’s violent past; Elba plays what is essentially a character created for expositional purposes with a dignity that made me think of Morgan Freeman. I’ve seen little else of his work, but damn that needs rectifying!

Regarding AnnaSophia Robb: The Agitation of the Mind Award for Creepy Kid is in the mail. ’Nuff said.

Actor/writer brothers Carey and Chad Hayes deserve a mention for a screenplay that incorporates the ten plagues and Satanic cults without descending into abject cliché or hysteria and keeping things focused and slow-burn almost until the end. Which is where things almost – almost – tip over into parody. The plague is a well-effected and skin-crawling set-piece, only to be superseded by the fire from the sky part of things, which reminded me of nothing else than ‘The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse’. There were a few moments where I was thrown out of the film by the expectation of Papa Lazarou turning up and rasping “It’s my apocalypse now, Dave”. Or Hilary Briss agreeing a knock-down price for the dead cattle.

Fortunately, Hopkins is canny enough to not overplay his hand, and this sequence runs only as long as is necessary. The actual denouement is quieter and darker in its implications. Overall, ‘The Reaping’ works well. In the canon of supernatural-themed films which debate the existence, implications of and conflict between good and evil, most fixate on the chief players in the battle – the demon and the exorcist, the Satanist and the priest, the force of evil and the force of good. ‘The Reaping’, while paying its dues to the devil and the angels, never loses sight of the mortals caught in the middle.


The Film Connoisseur said...

I dug it lots, it was effective, and as you said didnt fall into cliche territory like it could've.

Elba appears in THOR as the god who controls a bridge that can transport you to anywhere in the universe. A pretty cool performance there too.

Neil Fulwood said...

Just caught up with 'Thor': yeah, Elba's terrific in that. I loved the bridge and the fact that the gatekeeper answers to no-one. That bridge is his responsibility and he'll back it up with his not inconsiderable might if it comes down to it.