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Raining frogs Rivers of blood, diseased livestock and more plagues

Sometimes, the recipe for a film is destined for disaster, if not cinema poisoning. Perhaps there has been trouble on the set or several release-date delays. Or maybe the studio is in a mad dash to recut following a nightmarish preview.

"The Reaping's" woes are far simpler to understand. It features a hackneyed premise, a downright awful director, a sketchy supporting cast and a star who simply cannot seem to make sense of how to choose film roles that take advantage of her strengths.

Are you excited yet?

If the aforementioned lethal concoction hasn't scared off most viewers, the film could make some decent change, like similarly themed horror vehicles of recent years such as "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" and "Skeleton Key." Much of the preview screening audience visibly jumped with each cheap jolt.

The "Exorcist"-lite plot, too, could initially seem worthy of exploration. Two-time Academy Award-winner Hilary Swank stars as Katherine Winter, an ex-missionary turned doubt-filled LSU professor, and an expert in debunking religious occurrences.

This brings her to Haven, a small town in Louisiana that -- here we go -- has found itself experiencing the plagues of the Bible. Rivers of blood? Check. Diseased livestock? Check. Frogs raining from the sky? Yup, they've got that, too, like a direct-to-DVD "Magnolia."

With the help of a local teacher played by David Morrissey, Winter must try to decipher what's happening and deal with her own lingering religious doubt.
This plot summary likely makes the film sound more theologically complex than it actually is; "The Reaping" is really just an excuse for some gross-out effects and typical Hollywood Southern-religious-nutcase creepiness. Just in time for Easter!

What, exactly, is Swank up to here? She has an inherent strength and an ability to pull off physical transformations that are alien to, say, Sandra Bullock or Julia Roberts. But I would argue that she has only made two wise decisions in her entire career as an actress. "Boys Don't Cry" and "Million Dollar Baby" were clearly astute, and resulted in Oscars.

Consider "The Reaping" as further example of what bad choices can do to unique actors. Whatever promise the story held on the page dissolved once director Stephen Hopkins came aboard.

This maestro of inanity has crafted trash such as "Predator 2," "The Ghost and the Darkness" and "Lost in Space." How he managed to direct HBO's adequate telepic "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers" and executive produce TV's "24" is beyond me, but "The Reaping" sees a return to what he does best: the cinema of the absurd.

I think this is the finest way to describe the film, since it is rather fun in a camp, bad-movie way (audiences might wish to think up their own mocking commentary along the way, and wouldn't that make for a killer DVD extra?).

For a real religion-based scare fest, you know what to do -- go rent "The Exorcist." Director William Friedkin's career-best is still shockingly wild and has a spook factor that surpasses its myriad rip-offs.

***

THE REAPING

1 1/2 stars (out of 4)

STARRING: Hilary Swank, David Morrissey, Idris Elba and Stephen Rea

DIRECTOR: Stephen Hopkins

RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes

RATING:R for violence, disturbing images and some sexuality.

THE LOWDOWN: A former missionary investigates a small town infested with 10 biblical plagues.

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