I should have paid more attention to Rotten Tomatoes, whose summary of the professional critics, with a lowly 7% 'fresh' rating, gives a pretty clear warning that this clichéd, seriously sub-par horror film is a bit of a stinker.
Somehow I got distracted by the slightly more optimistic public rating of 56% over at imdb, and the rather good box office figures, which make it clear that someone, somewhere has made good money. But make no mistake, this is a great steaming turd of a movie - it's enough to make a grown man cry, and not in a good way!
It could all have been so different. After all, the premise isn't too bad: A cynical scholar Katherine Winter (Hilary Swank), is asked to investigate what appears to be a re-occurrence of the ten Biblical plagues that are infesting a small town. The town is called - wait for it! - Haven (could there be a clue in there, d'ya think?! If you're wondering where the missing 'e' went, my guess is that it was given to whoever decided to fund this nonsense, just before he was asked to sign on the dotted line!)
As the story unfolds we get some of Winter's back-story. It turns out that she used to be married to a priest, and was herself ordained. However, while working abroad in a desert village, her young daughter was brutally killed by superstitious locals who believed the girl to be the cause of a severe, over long drought.
Having turned away from the Church, she now specialises in debunking miracles, giving talks on her experiences. At one such talk she is approached by 'Doug' (David Morrisey) who asks her to help with a series of Biblical plagues that are occurring in Haven. Her first inclination is to turn down the request, until she learns that Haven residents blame a girl the same age as her now-dead daughter for the problems, and are threatening to kill her to end the run of bad luck.
With the love interest established fairly early on (Doug is single, his wife having died of cancer some years earlier), the introduction of a third character - best friend 'Ben' (Idris Elba) - isn't exactly subtle. As the token 'black' character one wonders why the film-makers didn't have him first appear with a big sign 'Guess who's gonna get killed first?!' hanging over his head. Yup, the basics of plot really are THAT clichéd and signalled well in advance, draining the film of any possible thrills or scares it might possibly be able to deliver.
Plagues should have proven to be an interesting, and rather novel, basis for an Omen-like horror story of science vs voodoo, but this promising premise is thrown away in a shoddy piece of writing that has to resort to sudden, loud bangs to generate ANY kind of scare.
One might forgive the appalling dialogue, poor narrative structure and weak special effects if there were any sort of credible characterisation here, but alas there's none, and the only scary thing about this 'horror' movie is that it's actually managed to get made (and apparently turn a profit).
Although the biggest culprit in this excuse-for-a-movie is the writing, the casting hasn't helped either. Swank uses her 'girl next door' Jennifer Garner-type charm to good effect at every conceivable opportunity, and Idris Elba gives a similarly naturalistic performance. But they both struggle to cope with a leading man (Morissey) who seems to have had a charisma bypass just before shooting started. And it's thanks to the appalling script, that even Swank finds herself having to make sudden complete switches in rationality and leaps of faith that make her character less believable than the flimsiest of cartoon caricatures.
In short, the film is a bit of a mess from start to finish!
As for the HD-DVD presentation... Let's get the good stuff out the way first. The sound is excellent. Every thud, moan and creek is beautifully presented without swamping out the main vocal track as happens so often with horror films. There's a better surround sound presence than you'd get with Dolby Digital 5.1 on a standard DVD.
Unfortunately, the sound is all this disc has going for it. Despite being a very recent film the picture is disappointing throughout. The noise on the dark scenes is amongst the worst I've seen, and even bright outdoor scenes are soft and lack colour and depth. There's nothing here you'd get over and above a standard DVD, and even the copious outdoor foliage looks dull and lifeless when compared with other HD-DVD offerings.
If the film's bad and the picture quality's bad, the extra's, unfortunately, aren't much better. Yet again we get a single 20-minute 'Making of' disguised as five separate extra's to fool casual browsers reading the sealed package's list of goodies into thinking they're getting a bargain. It goes without saying that even these meagre extra's are presented in standard, rather than high, definition.
A 14 minute documentary Science of the 10 Plagues is the meatiest extra, but has nothing to do with the film itself, other than the fact it discusses the original Egyptian 10 plagues from the Bible which are the backbone to the story told in the film.
We are then into two 5-minute features The Characters and A Place Called Haven which are thinly disguised excuses to just replay excerpts from the trailer rather than give any real insight into the film-making process.
Another feature, The Seventh Plague - Those Creepy Bugs, checks in at under 2 minutes, and is simply on-set home movie footage of a cast member bragging about getting close to the bugs. Finally, a 3-minute Scary Story, written and read by the film's youngest actor, AnnaSophia Robb, is the sort of 'I had a bad dream and then woke up and then the dream became real' infantile doggerel that kids of 5 or 6 would be ashamed to own up to. The fact that this narrated story is accompanied by 'film student' footage of vaguely appropriate images, segued into footage of the actress/story writer herself trying to look moody does nothing to rescue the thing.
At £17.99 (it's an over-priced combo with the HD-DVD on one side, and a Region 1 standard DVD version on the other) this is an HD-DVD you can afford to miss out on, even if you're a fan of B-movie horror. This is possibly worth seeing if you're a fan of Hilary Swank or it's a free rental, but otherwise it's one to avoid.