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'The Reaping' is a dud

Seems a week doesn't go by at the cinema without a new horror film breaking. It's the genre du jour and by all indications the wave hasn't crested.

Of course, it's been one of Hollywood's staples for decades, ever since Lon Chaney and Bela Lugosi staggered out of a crypt.

And horror films have more permutations than a high school dress code. There are the straightforward, goose-bump raising slasher in the closet, monster on the loose, or back from the dead-zombie movies. Hundreds have been made over the years, "The Hills Have Eyes 1-2," "I Know What You Did Last Summer 1-2" and siblings of "Night of the Living Dead" come to mind.

To be sure, there are those films that have a high creep factor simply by suggesting that spirits are everywhere, waiting for a chance to torment mere mortals: some inhabit televisions, live in crypts, or return to finish unfinished business. The mega-hit "Ghost" is a fine example. Many of the deceased take up residence in old houses with dank basements. Their images often appear in hallway or bathroom mirrors, brief reflections of pasty-faced children long ago dead.

And then there's the horror film all wrapped up in religious/satanic imagery, one of the best being "The Exorcist." Wearing garlic and carrying a cross is often helpful. A shriveled chicken's foot just might have some mojo.

Speaking of permutations, not to forget Sci-Fi horror, where ETs arrive to disrupt or destroy and create as much havoc as possible. Recall the recent Tom Cruise vehicle, "War of the Worlds." The small, bug-eyed drivers of those strange, long-stemmed, laser-shooting vehicles took no prisoners.

In the alternative, benign ETs have arrived (it's man who is a threat), and so the encounters of the third kind prove to be exhilarating and even enlightening. "ET," "Encounters of the Third Kind," and "The Day the Earth Stood Still" are still three of the best.

"The Reaping," which just opened last weekend, is of the religio-horror ilk, released on Good Friday, no less, to play in theaters over the Easter weekend. The film is set in a steamy swamp in Southern Louisiana, where Katherine (Hillary Swank), an ordained minister who has left the church when she had a crisis of faith, arrives to debunk paranormal events threatening the small town of Haven. But then, as a professor at LSU, she has been explaining the inexplicable for years, bringing to bear all the science available to show that what people believe are miracles are merely natural or man-made phenomena. Her batting average has been 1,000 so far.

That is until she arrives in Haven.

It's in this bayou town that she is abruptly subjected to events of biblical proportions. In fact, the town is being ravaged by the plagues of scripture, beginning with waters turning to blood, animals dying, and locusts swarming. Quick, take samples of the river water and send them back to the lab. Do research. Film the bugs. Interrogate farmers who are losing cattle. Meet the local minister at his church. Who is one strange guy.

And it isn't that she hasn't been warned that what's afoot is a bit scary. A priest involved calls her after an upside down sickle appears burned into photos of Katherine and spooks him out. Upside down sickles are a really bad omen, he explains. Especially if one appears on the back of an emaciated body lying in the morgue. Oh oh.

Slowly, woodenly, predictably, a great struggle between the forces of good (God) and evil (Satan) takes shape and Katherine and her assistant, Ben (Idris Elba), are smack dab in the middle. Property values are dropping and people are freaking out. This is not good. And neither is the film. But then, the purveyors of the horror genre have long ago stopped giving a hoot about critics, or stories that make any sense at all. They've got their demographics' number and know that kids will pay good money to be scared witless.

Will they be scared watching "The Reaping"? Frightened to the point where tushies leave the movie seats? Nope. But will they feel just a bit creepy? Well, yes. There's one scene where Katherine is covered in locusts, and all the bug spray in Louisiana wouldn't make a dent. That was an itchy, skin-crawling moment.

But the impact, such as it is, of bugs, red water and lightning bolts &

all thanks to the marvels of computer generated graphics &

really comes down to the fine acting of Oscar-winning Swank.

Fact is, even Swank can't keep this clunker afloat; she does try, though. She walks through ominous, moldy, decrepit houses. She runs through dank woods chasing a small child who is the key; she's got to be the answer, this small waif. She hides in a cold, dark basement. And even ventures into a crypt where anyone, with even a modicum of common sense, would immediately exit. Not another step. Turn around and leave.

But alas, "The Reaping" (the title never makes any sense, but sounds ominous and biblical) sinks like a metal cross dropped into a river of blood. Now you see it, now it's being offered in DVD.