Ever since The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby and The Omen scared the living snot of of me as a kid (we're talking early '80s here), I've been a huge fan of "occult" or "religious" thrillers. From the tackiest Italian knock-offs (The Antichrist, Beyond the Door, etc.) to the goofiest American re-treads (Audrey Rose, Abby, etc.), I scoured the video shelves and the cable channels, always hungry for just another small taste of what those three movies delivered. Heck, I even snuck into a forbidden matinee of The Seventh Sign back in '88 -- so obviously we're talking about a kid who really wanted to find a few new religio-thrillers to enjoy.

But nowadays, after more than two decades searching for another Exorcist or Omen, I think I've been officially cured of my affections for this particular sub-genre. I blame the filmmakers, frankly, for hewing too closely to established formula and aiming to ape "the big three" without ever forging any new or exciting ground. (If you want to get more specific, I believe it was somewhere between End of Days, Stigmata, Bless the Child and The Exorcism of Emily Rose that I truly gave up -- and last year's remake of The Omen acted as a sign that I'd made the right move.) But don't think I walked into The Reaping with my mind already made up. Hope springs eternal for the ardent horror fan, and every new movie that comes down the pike offers a small promise of something special. Or if not something special, then perhaps something slick and creepy and therefore appealing.

It took less than 20 minutes of Stephen Hopkins' aimlessly stupid The Reaping before I was ready to close the casket on the occult thriller forever. Not so much blatantly inept as it is plain old dreary and dull, The Reaping feels like a used car that was cobbled together out of spare parts stolen from Sleepy Hollow, The Wicker Man, Silent Hill, The Omen and (yes) The Seventh Sign -- with just a few little bits of CSI tossed in there to please the housewives. The Reaping is an aggressively silly affair, and one made all the more humorous for all the effort it makes to be serious. Suffice to say that the leading lady makes less of an impression than do her wide array of tank tops and perpetually in-focus cleavage. Two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank (for some insane reason) stars as a college professor who specializes in the debunking of religious phenomena. Basically she'll show up in some savage land, throw a few glances around the place, and promptly deduce that a local "miracle" is actually the result of a hidden toxic waste dump. Genius. But when an old colleague harasses our heroine into visiting a squishy Louisiana swamp burg, she throws all her equipment (and one loyal sidekick) into the truck and heads out to elucidate all those crazy religious bumpkins. Seems that a bunch of pesky plagues have taken up residence in the marsh-town, and the locals are convinced that a feral little girl is the source of all the biblical wrath. Will our haunted heroine discover the truth behind the plagues? Can she kill a little girl if the screenplay calls for it? How will you manage to stay awake for 95 minutes to find out?

All those questions (and less) will be answered once you find The Reaping perched atop the $8.99 "pre-viewed" DVD bin over at Blockbuster -- because there's no freaking way this misguided yawn carnival is worthy of a $15 multiplex investment. Thinly written by the brothers who gave you the (also terrible) House of Wax remake, The Reaping comes from the "horror specialty" production house known as Dark Castle. In other words, if you still trust the word of the people who offered you House on Haunted Hill, Thirteen Ghosts, Ghost Ship, Gothika and House of Wax -- then you'll probably have a ball with what goes on in The Reaping. When it's not casually delivering goofy plague moments (blood! boils! frogs!), The Reaping is more than content to rely (a whole lot) on those wonderful old stand-bys of the genre: dull flashbacks, sudden and stupid "jolts," hazy dream sequences, and a whole lot of overbaked backstory that adds next to nothing to the bottom line.

And when a movie can't even make something like "biblical plagues" worth watching, you just know you're in the hands of filmmakers as lazy as they are lost. The Reaping is alternately silly, stolen and as boring as a three-hour sermon. I won't even get into the woefully choppy finale in which all the problems are solved through the use of lightning bolts, ADR volleys delivered in hoarse expulsions, and a Deus Ex Machina so outrageous it just might have you storming the box office for a refund. It's easy to see why The Reaping has been sitting on a shelf for about a year: It stinks, big time, and I find it more than a little amusing to note that WB opted to unleash the thing during the Easter/Passover holiday -- not to mention opposite Grindhouse, which will bury this annoying afterthought of a thriller with very little effort indeed.