THE best horror movies pick up on our shared societal dread -- fear of the unknown, fear of the other -- and serve it back to us as clear, present, conquerable dangers. A zombie, a germ, a vigilante moralist gone bananas -- whatever it is, it wreaks havoc on society until society gets it together to fight back. Until then, it's all about the flight, because any sane person knows there's just no reasoning with an airborne virus/irradiated ant/angry poltergeist/unhinged psycho. That's part of what makes them so scary. They don't empathize with normal people.
Considering how fuzzy the line between good guys and bad guys has gotten in real life, it's no surprise our horror films are confused. Films like the George Romero classic "Dawn of the Dead," Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby" and Ridley Scott's "Alien" pinpointed and honed our shared anxieties about crazed consumerism, careerism, alienation and the body down to hot nubs of primal terror. Monster movies from the 1950s did the same with nuclear age anxieties about the unintended consequences of technological advances. The best horror movies implicate their victims, in the horrors of the age -- even if only by pointing out their weakness or passivity.
And yet if horror movies can still be considered mirrors on our collective fears, lately they've gotten foggy to the point of total obfuscation. Table-turning torture entertainments like "Hostel" and "Turistas" have body-snatched the genre with lively depictions of foreign others doing unto us as we fear they'd like to do unto us in retaliation for what we actually do unto them, though at least it can be said for them that they have the good taste to fake umbrage at American conduct abroad as justification.
This is more than can be said for "The Reaping," Warner Bros.' bombastic foray into the burgeoning God market. A histrionic supernatural thriller about science vs. faith (faith wins, but only when it's aligned with fundamentalist Bible-belt Christianism), it's a convoluted jumble of superstition, anti-intellectualism, dubious theology and holier-than-thou xenophobia.
The movie's hero is a minister turned college professor (read: heathen) named Katherine Winter (Hilary Swank). When we first meet her, she's in Chile, saving a small town from chemical poisoning and Spanish-accented Catholicism. Striding into a church full of wailing faithful, she's approached by a child who recognizes her as a savior -- "Are you American?" the child asks. "Yes," she says. No more elaboration is necessary. She's come to save the day.
In her former life, we learn, Katherine was dedicated to piously thumping Africans with her Bible and was rewarded for her trouble with a couple of machete blows to her photogenic family. The Sudanese tribesmen she was trying to convert (red-eyed descendants of those confronted by Carl Denham in the original "King Kong," apparently) thought they could appease the rain gods with the blood of a young blond child.
In what appears to be no time flat, she's chucked her faith and started teaching a combo forensic science/miracle-debunking class at a large university, where she regales her students with tales of toxic waste-dumping, sacrificial child-slaughtering Third World countries "economically challenged to believe in almost anything."
It's not until she takes on evil on her home turf -- the devil has taken over an idyllic Southern town and turned it into a child-sacrifice mill -- that she comes to the conclusion that the biblical plagues befalling the town must be the work of the devil. Which of course would make her a godsend.
In all her gym-toned, sun-kissed, blond-highlighted, daredevil mommy-avenger mode, Third World-rescuing (even if they don't appreciate it) glory, Katherine is a far cry from the portrayal of Americans in "The Host," the monster movie by Joon-ho Bong that was a huge hit in Korea. From the gung-ho young soldier who flings himself headlong into the path of the monster only to be sacrificed by his own to the cross-eyed lunatic commander straight out of "Dr. Strangelove," the characterization is a high-handed comic goosing.
And yet what could be genuinely scarier than unparalleled might coupled with an unshakable sense of infallibility and God-approved meddling? According to "The Host," not much -- except maybe a giant, mutant fish-toad leaping onto the banks of the Han River to picnic on picnickers, but then it's literally a product of its environment.
A contemporary monster movie told in a fleet, spare, un-heroic style, "The Host" is an allegory about an unsuspecting population recklessly endangered by a careless and condescending superpower that creates crises to step in and solve them.