Dir: Stephen Hopkins. US. 2007. 99mins.
After a recent sojourn working in television and cable, action director Stephen Hopkins pulls out all the stops with The Reaping. The result is a frenzied and unrestrained supernatural horror thriller, starring two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank as a debunker of religious phenomena enlisted to explain the furious acts descending on an isolated Southern community.

A religiously inflected thriller in the vein of John Boorman's Exorcist sequel, The Heretic, with a late acknowledgement of Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, The Reaping also recalls Sam Raimi's underrated The Gift with their shared geographical settings, as well as Neil La Bute's recent remake of The Wicker Man.

Written by the twin brother writing team of Carey and Chad Hayes (House Of Wax), the long delayed project (its production briefly interrupted by Hurricane Katrina) has too many self-cancelling authors (Hopkins, producers Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis) to convincingly register a dominant sensibility or strong point of view.

The movie has floated around the company's release schedule, shifted to the spring from its original autumn slot, and now opens during the week of Passover and Easter, a decision that may alienate some given its religious overtones (although the distributor has tried to mitigate any controversy by rolling it out officially on Thursday, April 5, to avoid a Good Friday opening).

The movie is likely to play like La Bute's The Wicker Man (which took less than $25m in the US), with a decent opening and a relatively quick fade out. The decent numbers posted by Swank's Freedom Writers ($36m at home) suggests she has the clout and appeal to carry a title, at least in home platforms.

Internationally the movie is probably best suited to DVD play, although it will find favour among territories that enjoy religious horror, such as Spain and Mexico.

Swank plays Katharine, a former ordained minister turned aggrieved agnostic after the tragic murder of her husband and young daughter on an African mission five years earlier.

Now a respected author and academic, Katherine and her top aide, (Elba), are approached by Doug (Morrissey), to travel to a remote Louisiana town to provide a natural explanation for a series of unexplained events and help alleviate the increasingly hysterical alarm of the local inhabitants.

A young boy's death unleashes a series of biblical acts- water turned to blood, frogs raining from the sky, lice, pestilence - that replicate the Ten Plagues of ancient Egypt. A young girl, Lauren (Robb), a blonde girl wearing a red dress, is immediately declared the source of God's vengeance, and Katherine attempts to make contract with her.

A secondary story involves a priest (Rea) warning Katherine of impending personal doom, a plot that in concert with the girl's age evokes the trauma of her murdered child.

Making his first theatrical feature since the low key character study Under Suspicion (2000), Hopkins clearly relishes the technical resources at his command. Working with some leading Hollywood animation and digital effects houses, he shows flair with some macabre and memorably menacing imagery: a high overhead shot of the dark red river, the furiously imagined locusts attacking a group, or a head that plunges into the water, witnessed from a reverse angle shot captured from underneath.

But he also directs as if afflicted with a nervous disorder. Every movement, every action, is pumped up and exaggerated that if effective in producing a jolt feels increasingly mannered and manipulative.

Swank's the star, and she brings a committed intensity and feeling to material that often isolates her thematically or instinctively. Hopkins rarely resists the urge of deploying a startling camera angle that utilises a lustful, even leering advantage of Swank's lithe, spectacular figure.

Rather the movie works best as genre exploitation; it is at its most offensive and ridiculous as it turns solemn and self-important. Several nasty asides about Southern evangelism may also deter some.

'This is a convoluted, contradictory legend,' she tells Rea's priest, and it is a telling indictment of the larger work. The script changes details and incident depending on the situation, scrambling nightmare, clairvoyance (Katharine sees details only available to Lauren on their first encounter) or hallucination that propels the story, though it also heightens a larger tendency for the absurd, ridiculous and unintentionally laughable.

Production backers/companies
Warner Bros
Dark Castle Entertainment
Village Roadshow Pictures
Chime Films

US distribution
Warner Bros

International distribution
Warner Bros

Susan Downey
Joel Silver
Robert Zemeckis

Executive producers
Bruce Berman
Erik Olsen
Steve Richards

Carey Hayes
Chad Hayes
from a story by
Brian Rousso

Peter Levy

Colby Parker Jr

Production design
Graham Grace Walker

John Frizzell

Main cast
Hilary Swank
David Morrissey
Idris Elba
AnnaSophia Robb
Stephen Rea
William Ragsdale
John McConnell