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THE MOVIE MASOCHIST: Just south of Hell

The American South is a scary place for some people, especially those who have never visited. Many movies would have you believe it's a humid backwater filled with religion-crazed people who occasionally emerge from run-down houses to kill interlopers in horrific ways, often while quoting lines of scripture just to let you know they're not part of a more rational, enlightened age.

Plenty of movies - from comedies to dramas to horror films - have played profitably off these Yankee fears. To some extent, naturally, a bad rap for the South is justified, given its history of slavery, Jim Crow laws and attempts to squash the Civil Rights Movement that often included murder. On the other hand, movies are giving people a South that vanished decades ago, lazily assuming that these familiar images alone are enough to give some folks the creeps. There's even a term for movies that trade in southern stereotypes - "hixploitation."

Granted, there have been some good movies steeped in fear of the South: "Deliverance," "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "In the Heat of the Night," to name a few. There are far more movies, however, like "Mandingo," "Two Thousand Maniacs" and the new horror film "The Reaping."

"The Reaping," set in rural Louisiana, takes place in the present but seemingly enters a time warp when its lead characters travel to the boondocks to investigate an ominous sign that suggests God has decided to go Old Testament on a small town.

Proving that awards can't save you from appearing in junk movies, two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank plays an ex-minister named Katherine Winter who teaches at Louisiana State University and spends her time debunking miracles because she lost her faith over the deaths of her husband and daughter. She reluctantly travels to the afflicted town, subtly called Haven, after a local schoolteacher Doug (David Morrissey) tells her the life of a little girl is at stake.

Any viewers already bored by the setup won't have to worry about dozing - "The Reaping" will keep them awake with phony shocks (a window blowing open, a door slamming) so amplified by Dolby stereo that each sounds like God's wrath has been set loose somewhere near the trash bins. It's a testament to failure when a movie's scariest moment is provided not by a multi-million-dollar special effects budget but by an unlatched window.

Katherine and her devout Christian protege Ben (Idris Elba, playing the part of the Supportive Minority Friend Who Must Die) arrive in Haven and discover the locals believe a supernaturally gifted little girl named Loren has caused the local river to turn to blood. A rash of plagues including frogs, boils, lice and locusts follow, and we're never sure exactly why.

Katherine begins an investigation that involves her walking around town in a sweaty tank top. After an interminable stretch in which the various plagues appear, some characters are revealed to be devil worshippers bent on killing the girl. To kill her someone has to use an ornate dagger, which is always the weapon of choice in religion-themed horror movies. Kitchen knives won’t do and guns - well, that’s just too easy.

God eventually intervenes before the girl can be dispatched, a literal deus ex machina. Just to show they've lost all capacity for shame, the filmmakers finish the movie with that cheap horror trope, the Twist Ending.

To create the town of Haven, the production designers and costume department studied back issues of Life magazine from no later than 1964, since hardly anything speaks of the 21st century. When Katherine hears music emanating from another room, it's coming from an old record player spinning a scratchy 78. It's the backward South – the place hasn't even seen MP3 players. Maybe we should be astonished that the streets are paved and there's indoor plumbing.

The townspeople are dressed in drab, homely clothes that would look suitable for a movie set during the Depression. One of them, the mayor, is a portly guy who wears horn-rimmed glasses, a white suit and always has his Eisenhower-era haircut Brylcreemed to his head. A question to anyone who lives in the South: Have you seen an individual who looks like this - outside of a movie - in the past 40 years?

There's also no air conditioning, requiring all the actors to be covered in a constant sheen of sweat. Even if your only experience with the South is using a rest stop on the way to Disney World, you've learned that air conditioning is the one thing you can count on. The summer heat is murderous, deadlier than any nutty stereotype with a knife.

Rated R for being reminiscent of other R-rated movies.

** out of four stars. Horrible.

The rating system:

* - Lousy** - Horrible*** - Painful**** - Traumatic