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Nice performance by the “Million Dollar Baby” can’t save this thriller

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Hilary Swank is faced with a problem.  A great problem, but still a problem: after two Best Actress Oscar wins, what direction will her career take?  She has a responsibility to the Academy, after all. 

She alerted us that she can play the femme fatale in “The Black Dahlia,” and went for uplifting with “Freedom Writers.” 

But now, her motivation for starring in the horror smorgasbord “The Reaping”?  I’m guessing that they paid her enough to buy a new beach house, because it couldn’t have been for the opportunity to work with all those locusts. 

Swank plays Katherine Winter, a former minister who lost her husband and daughter while doing missionary work in the Sudan.  Her loss had a dampening effect on her faith, as we learn in a series of explanatory scenes that have all the subtlety of the raging biblical terrors to come later.  When we meet her, Katherine has become the foremost debunker of religious phenomena such as weeping statues.  She has investigated 48 miraculous occurrences, and come up with 48 scientific explanations for them.  “The only miracle is that people keep believing,” she concludes. 

And then, Case No. 49: a bloody river in a small Southern town called Haven.  The hick townspeople are convinced it’s a plague brought on by a 12-year-old devil girl who seems to have killed her brother at the site.  Katherine sets out to prove that the red water is probably just the toxic microbe phesteria — duh! — and then she can pack up her Ralph Lauren safari wardrobe and get back to her empty life. 

Until it starts raining frogs.  Katherine may have turned her back on God, but it seems that God wants her back.  The little girl (Is she evil?  Or a scapegoat?) is played by AnnaSophia Robb, who recently starred in “Bridge to Terabithia.”  She doesn’t have to do much here but bewitch us with her blue eyes.  It is a little alarming that we’ve gone from fearing villains such as Freddy/Michael Myers/Chucky to demonizing pale pre-adolescent girls who’ve never been taught how to condition their hair (see: “The Ring”).  There are even rumors that Warner Brothers is going to remake “The Bad Seed.”  Make it stop! 

Katherine has a love interest in a local schoolteacher played by David Morrissey, whom you may have enjoyed during the half-hour you were able to stomach “Basic Instinct 2.”  The Englishman attempts a Louisiana accent, and then wisely distracts us by looking sensitive yet strapping.  Stephen Rea is a priest from Katherine’s past who tries to alert her to danger. 

Swank is worth every penny, bringing what gravity she can to dialogue that is occasionally laugh-out-loud awful.  (Screenwriting brothers Carey W. Hayes and Chad Hayes also have the Paris Hilton-slaughtering “House of Wax” on their resume.)  Big names Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis have producing credits and pour on the special effects and unexpected twists. 

But “The Reaping” embraces one too many horror clichés.  When a clearly expendable character takes shelter in a mausoleum because, you know, WHAT COULD BE SAFER? — you’ll scream for all the wrong reasons.  And the movie goes beyond paying homage to its worthier predecessors (“Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Omen”), outright stealing a plot point. 

That said, it did scare the bejesus out of me.  Director Stephen Hopkins has most recently been working on the acclaimed TV series “24” and maintains a relentless pace of things jumping out at Katherine (and the audience).  I am still in permanent flinch.  You will root for a scientific explanation very early on. 

But in the end, I was tripped up by the convoluted explanations.  A good thriller should wring all the blood out of your brain and leave you blissfully blank, exhilarated just to be alive, and with the irresistible urge to furiously make out with your date. 

Instead, “The Reaping” left me with questions.  Why were they ...?  Did she ...?  Couldn’t he have just ...?  Since I have no intention of watching the movie two more times to sort it all out, I’m left disgruntled.  It’s almost enough to make you lose faith in horror movies. 

The Reaping


Starring: Hilary Swank, David Morrissey and Stephen Rea

Director: Stephen Hopkins

Rated: R for violence, disturbing images and some sexuality

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