When I was a kid, my parents subscribed to a Catholic newspaper that included movie ratings from the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures (originally the infamous National Legion of Decency). As I recall, movies were rated “permitted,” “objectionable,” “highly objectionable,” and “condemned.” Of course, as soon as I was old enough to go to the movies unsupervised, “condemned” became the equivalent of “two thumbs up.”
God may have begun punishing me for my sins last week, when I had to sit through a severely stupid horror flick called The Reaping. Produced by veteran crapmeister Joel Silver, it’s one of those suspense films so lacking in suspense that its meager scares have to be augmented with high-decibel blasts to keep the audience awake. And like a number of recent horror items grasping for some sort of legitimacy (The Order, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist), it thumps the Bible so hard you expect the pages to fly out. The main setting is a southern backwater where all the churches have street signs with vaguely threatening epigrams (“God loves you—but don’t push it!”), and the townsfolk are all in a tizzy because one of the local swamps has inexplicably turned into a lake of blood, just like the first plague of Egypt from the Book of Exodus.
Enter Hilary Swank, a university lecturer who specializes in using science to debunk religious miracles. (The scene of Swank holding forth in a lecture hall is one miracle the movie doesn’t address.) She used to be a Christian missionary but lost her faith after her young daughter died; in my own experience, trauma usually draws people closer to God, but for the screenwriter tapping away with a copy of Syd Field at his side, it’s always the opposite. Now Swank gets her jollies by proving there’s a logical explanation for that image of Christ in your smashed peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but she has her work cut out for her when the town is beset by frogs, lice, beetles, diseased livestock, etc.
If this sounds like something you want to see, stop reading here, because I’m about to spill the ending: the God-fearing townspeople are secretly a Satanic cult, and in the movie’s muddled climax they converge on Swank like zombies from a George Romero movie. It’s the ultimate secularist cliche—Christians are not just benighted, they’re actively evil—and Warner Brothers has compounded the insult by opening The Reaping just in time for Easter. I’ve never understood why, in a profoundly religious country, movies seem incapable of treating religion with any degree of intelligence; people of faith have to choose between emotionally retarded stuff like this and niche-marketed Sunday-school lessons like The Nativity Story. (Two current European imports that put us to shame are Into Great Silence and Beyond the Gates.)
I was interested to learn that The Reaping was shot in Louisiana and production was interrupted by Hurricane Katrina. Obviously these guys can’t take a hint.