Monday, February 05, 2007

The Messengers

THE MESSENGERS (Danny Pang and Oxide Pang, 2007)

Only in the movies is moving to a creepy, isolated farmhouse considered a good idea for helping a family recover from a major trauma. In the end it usually works out but not before a maniac or homicidal spirits have tested their resolve. Hasn't anyone heard of group therapy?

In THE MESSENGERS the emotionally bruised family leaves Chicago to start anew on a North Dakota sunflower farm. The dark cloud of an unmentioned incident hangs over them and is responsible for the visible tension between Jess (Kristen Stewart) and her mother Denise (Penelope Ann Miller). Jess' father Roy (Dylan McDermott) hasn't erased the past from his memory, but he's willing to give his daughter a second chance.

Bad omens manifest almost as soon as they arrive at their new home. Crows hover around the house, with a few finding their way inside. Colby Price (William B. Davis) swoops in to offer Roy a contract guaranteeing him fifteen percent profit on the property, a deal he swiftly declines. Strange mold stains keep appearing on the walls. Jess' little brother Ben (Evan and Theodore Turner) sees ghosts but can't tell anyone because the youngster doesn't talk.

Things start looking up as the sunflower crop flourishes, thanks in part to Burwell (John Corbett). Roy can't pay the out-of-work farmhand until the harvest, but he puts him up in the workers' quarters and provides meals. The offer is good enough for Burwell, who soon becomes like a fifth member of the family.

The good times are shaken when Jess notices weird phenomena around the house, but no one will believe her because of her recent history.

Today's horror films seem to exist on the extreme ends of the spectrum. There are those like HOSTEL that leave nothing to the imagination in graphically depicting bodies being shredded and splattered. At the other pole are the minimalist films, like THE GRUDGE 2 and THE RETURN. They try to create scares through silence and patience in revealing the secrets of the mysteries. The problem with many of these minimalist horror movies is that they strip away plot and character development too. While tone is important, a gripping story and interesting characters are necessary as well. Sometimes watching nothing happen builds tension, and sometimes it's like watching nothing happen. If I wanted to look down a hallway for a long time, I could stay at home and save the cost of a ticket.

THE MESSENGERS comes from the Pang brothers, who made the eerily effective THE EYE, but any hope that their background in Asian horror might improve this weak Hollywood knockoff is quickly squashed. The film's problems boil down to story. THE MESSENGERS has none, or nothing beyond the sketch of an idea: family with troubled past moves into spooky new home.

This is boilerplate filmmaking at its lousiest. It assumes the viewers know the rules from similar films, yet anyone who has seen comparable movies will be bored to tears by knowing everything that will come. It's not until three-quarters of the way through that the family's secret comes out. The revelation is hardly worth the wait. It just as well could have been mentioned in the first scene. And why bother casting the Cigarette Smoking Man from THE X-FILES when his role has no relevance?

During the film I saw the glare of cell phone lights from almost every member of the audience. It's indicative of how much moviegoing etiquette has declined, but such behavior is also a signal of how uninterested everyone was. Eighty minutes of a tracking shot through the sunflower fields would have been more dramatic than what THE MESSENGERS delivers. There you go Hollywood, the idea for the next #1 movie in America. It won't call for a cast, and it won't interrupt the viewers' other activities during the film. Just make sure to spell my name right in the credits.

Grade: D

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