LOS ANGELES- When Hilary Swank moved into an old farmhouse in rural Louisiana to begin filming The Reaping, a kind next-door neighbor promptly appeared, bearing a freshly baked pecan pie to welcome the actress to the neighborhood. Easing down the front porch steps, the neighbor also mentioned a piece of friendly advice: "Watch out for the ghosts."
Stories of haunted houses and eerie occurrences on the movie's set in the Louisiana bayou are plentiful when Swank recounts making The Reaping, a horror film involving a modern-day repeat of the Old Testament's 10 plagues in a small Louisiana town (see right). But Swank says she is more "open-minded" than superstitious when it comes to the supernatural.
When it comes to specific religious issues, like the ones brought up in this movie with Old Testament themes and Christian characters, Swank told WORLD she's "kind of down the middle. . . . I would say I'm more of an optimist than a skeptic or a pessimist."
Swank's optimism hasn't led her to embrace Christianity, and making this movie didn't rattle any spiritual cages in her soul. Instead, she said the film gave her a chance to "challenge my own mind and look at things differently."
Since Swank's character is a university professor who has renounced her faith and debunks purported miracles, the actress plunged into reading material by religious skeptics: "There are these great magazines that show how all this stuff can be scientifically proven."
The actress also consulted the work of Christians who maintain their faith can't be discounted with scientific claims. Swank says neither side fully persuaded her, but she did become convinced of one thing: "Things are not always as they seem."
Director Stephen Hopkins learned that lesson in a vivid way while filming The Reaping. Hopkins, who says he is "very spiritual" but not a Christian, admits he initially harbored disdain for the Christians he met in small Louisiana towns.
The director listened to radio evangelists who promised prosperity to those who sent money. Communities were "very pro-George Bush, very right-wing," and narrow news coverage made it "hard to get a hold of information down there," he said. It didn't take long for Hopkins to decide: "These people are religious fundamentalists, they're not very well-educated-What's wrong with them?"
Two months later, something happened that dramatically changed Hopkins' mind: Hurricane Katrina. "After the hurricane, I saw these people and these churches open their doors to all refugees-it didn't matter how rich or poor, or what color you were," Hopkins told WORLD. "And I was blown away."
When filming in Baton Rouge resumed after a brief hiatus, Hopkins says a local crew member showed up with his arm in a sling: The young man had sprained it during hours of preparing food for hurricane victims at his church.
Hopkins was humbled. "I was looking down my nose at these people, and I was wrong to do that," he says. "I was knocked out by the generosity. . . . It was extraordinary."
But while Hopkins learned to take Christians more seriously, the filmmaker didn't learn to take God more seriously. When asked about his thoughts on the God of the Bible, he replied: "The Old Testament deities were a different kettle of fish."
The movie's marketing arm has trivialized the Bible's account of the plagues by offering website visitors an opportunity to smite their friends: Choose a plague and enter an email address, and your friend will receive this message: "You have displeased the Lord, prepare to feel his wrath-Click here to be smote." Click the link, and a glut of frogs or boils or flies appears, all of which can be splat with another click.
When John Calvin wrote about the Egyptian plagues, he warned against taking God's judgments lightly. He also warned against missing the central message of those judgments: "Let fear, then, teach us to repent; and that we may not provoke His vengeance by proud contempt, let us learn that nothing is more terrible than to fall into His hands."
Along the palm-lined streets of Los Angeles, a series of curious billboards asks a startling question: "What hath God wrought?" Near the high-end shops on Rodeo Drive, the question appears on an ominous sign with a red background and gothic script, with the subhead: "Plague one: The rivers ran red with blood."
More signs with more plagues pop up around town, but this isn't a high-profile Old Testament lesson. It's advertising for The Reaping, a horror film about a remote, Louisiana town suffering from a series of bizarre events that bear striking resemblance to the 10 plagues in the book of Exodus.
The film opens as Katherine Winter (Hilary Swank) is called on to investigate the town's mysterious afflictions. Katherine, a former missionary who abandoned her faith after her family was murdered, now debunks so-called miracles around the world.
But when Katherine tests samples from the town's blood-red river, she's shocked at the results: human blood. As the subsequent plagues unfold with increasing severity, Katherine must decide whether she's wrong about the supernatural after all.
The first half of The Reaping (rated R for violence, disturbing images, and some sexuality) doesn't feel like a traditional horror film. The plagues are grotesque, but not gratuitous. The acting is good, and the unknown is frightening. But as the movie reaches its turning point, so does its restraint: A bizarre plot twist leads to dark, disturbing developments that don't entertain and an over-the-top ending that majors on special effects.
Producer Joel Silver (maker of such blockbuster films as The Matrix and Lethal Weapon) says making a horror movie based on the plagues made sense: "The Bible has some of the original horror stories," he told WORLD.
The Bible's "horror stories" are meant to invoke fear and repentance, but Katherine's epiphany is ambiguous and creepy, raising more questions than it answers. Screenwriter Chad Hayes says he didn't aim for theological accuracy, but instead examined "how far someone could fall" from faith. He loosely based Katherine's character on his aunt, a missionary whose husband was killed in India. Did she lose her faith? "No," says Hayes. "She remained so religious after that. She is to this day."