It's generally not a good sign when a studio delays a film's theatrical release. Although there are cases where good films see release date delays, more often than not it's the first indication that there are problems with a film. Such was the case with 'The Reaping,' a fire-and-brimstone horror film that was delayed by over a year before finally hitting theaters this past April, when it was universally panned by critics (the film currently ranks a 7% rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes).
The film's premise is intriguing enough. Katherine Winter (Hilary Swank) is a scientific investigator who travels around the world successfully debunking religious miracles. Constantly at odds with her Christian upbringing, Katherine has never stumbled onto a true miracle. When a river in a Louisiana town called Haven mysteriously turns to blood, she's approached by a skeptic named Doug Blackwell (David Morrissey) and asked to head South. The townsfolk believe this strange event is the first of ten plagues that will mirror those recorded in the book of Exodus. Determined to discover the scientific explanation behind the "plague," Katherine and her assistant Ben (Idris Elba) head to Haven to get to the bottom of a brewing evil.
I'm not a filmmaker, but it doesn't seem like it would be all that difficult to make the Ten Plagues a frightening affair. Swarms of bugs, rampant disease, darkness and fire -- these elements would all seem to be horror movie gold. Unfortunately, despite having such promise, there just isn't a lot to be scared of in 'The Reaping.' The film doesn't rely on tension or unease, instead it falls back on a tired series of jumps, boos, and rattles that come straight out of the campy-horror-movie handbook. Even worse, the spectacle is weak, the gore is ordinary, and the victims are unlikable.
Even so, I might have been able to sit back and enjoy the film as a thriller if it weren't for its Swiss-cheese script. Although there are a few effective scenes early on in the film, they're ultimately revealed to be a fruitless distraction by the time we reach the clumsy and ridiculous out-of-left field final act. The story and conventions of the film are stretched so far beyond their limits that I was often left with nothing to do but roll my eyes.
On the bright side, Hilary Swank and Idris Elba (Stringer Bell on "The Wire") do turn in relatively strong performances -- arguably stronger than the film deserves. Granted, they're not given a lot to work with, but they do manage to bring an authenticity to their roles that helps soften the blow of the overall film. The piss-poor dialogue feels a bit strange coming out of their award winning lips, but it likely would have been much worse film in the hands of less seasoned performers.
All in all, 'The Reaping' isn't the first (and it's not likely to be the last) paper-thin horror retread of an old Sunday School lesson, and I'm sure it will find a somewhat forgiving audience on home video. Having said that, horror fans looking for strong scripts and tense chills should stay far away from this headache.
Presented with identical 1080p/VC-1 encodes on both HD DVD and Blu-ray, I'm sorry to report that 'The Reaping' is a somewhat underwhelming visual experience. Considering the fact that the film was just in theaters a few months back, I'd hoped a shiny transfer that would put others to shame. But while the picture clearly benefits from its high-def presentation, this one doesn't feel nearly as refined as other next-gen new releases.
The biggest upgrade from the standard DVD is in the colors -- bold and beautiful, the rich palette brings backwater Louisiana to life. Saturation is spot-on, with accurate skintones and comfortable primaries. The contrast is also well balanced, with exterior shots that don't suffer from hot whites. Detail is at its best in close-ups, but trails off as the camera pulls away. Long shots are decent, but they fail to render plantlife and leaves as crisply as more notable current releases.
Moving on to the more pronounced problems, softness can be an issue from time to time, black levels are often crushed, and detail is occasionally lost in the backgrounds. There's also a fair amount of source noise, including artifacting in the shadows, pixelation in low lit faces, and shiftiness in the darkest areas of the screen. I had a hard time overlooking the spiking noise that creeped in from all angles during nighttime scenes, but I even found myself distracted by varying grain levels in daylight shots.
To sum up, overall this is certainly an acceptable transfer, but there are too many issues here to make it a top tier video presentation.
The audio package more than makes up for the average video with an excellent Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround mix (48kHz/16-Bit/3.0 Mbps). An impressive dynamic presence is established almost immediately with booming bass rumbles and stable treble tones. The LFE channel is particularly aggressive, and the rear speakers get plenty of work from the active soundscape. Ambiance has a consistent role in the soundfield and I found the environmental acoustics thoroughly convincing.
It also helps that the dialogue is clean and nicely balanced in the mix -- I never lost any important lines beneath the chaos of more bombastic scenes. To top it off, pans are solid, directionality is spot on, and I even found myself tricked into believing certain soundfield elements were occurring at other points in my home theater. In fact, to my ears, the only thing that holds this one back from perfection is the film's sometimes stagey sound design. I know it's a horror flick, but I've come to expect a certain level of organic reality in my TrueHD mixes, and this one just isn't entirely believable. Still, this is a wonderful mix from Warner.
This HD DVD/DVD combo edition of 'The Reaping' carries over the complete supplements package from the concurrently-released standard DVD edition, but unfortunately that's not saying much.
Combined, the four included featurettes barely pass the half hour mark, with each only grazing the surface. "Science of the 10 Plagues" (15 minutes) dryly examines the possible scientific explanations for the biblical plagues in the book of Exodus. "The Characters" (7 minutes) takes a shallow look at the script and the character arcs in the film. "A Place Called Heaven" (6 minutes) explores the locations and sets that appear in the movie. Finally, "The Seventh Plague" is almost 2 minutes and covers the live-action bugs used in the production.
(Note that all four featurettes are presented in 480i/p video only.)
'The Reaping' is tedious, predictable and burdened by its strict adherence to genre clichés. This HD DVD release induces the same sort of yawns. Aside from an excellent TrueHD mix, there's nothing else here to get excited about. The video transfer doesn't pop like a new film should, and the supplemental content is as shallow as a kiddie pool. Depending on your outlook, this one may still make a good rental for a rainy day, but I can't recommend it for anything more.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.