The Messengers

Or, the Pang Brothers, Sam Raimi and Co. Try to Do for Sunflowers What M. Night Shyamalan Did for Corn.

First of all, I scare easily. Very, very easily. I watched The Others in broad daylight at a friend's house, and I was still creeped out for weeks, waiting for my drapes to start opening and closing themselves. After seeing Signs, I spent the next few days leaping into bed so the alien hiding underneath couldn't grab my ankles with its nasty claws. Don't even get me started on the aftermath of the night when I unwisely let my friends talk me into seeing Thirteen Ghosts in that dark, dark theatre. I don't REALLY think anything's going to happen to me, but apparently I've never quite lost the last of my Calvin-esque imagination from my younger days.

So you can imagine my dilemma when I was faced with the two new movie options this week: a scare-fest, and the sort of comedy where the only three good jokes are usually in the previews and everything else is just slightly painful filler. You know, like Meet the Parents. It took a lot of soul-searching, but I finally decided that jokes about menopause, Diane Keaton's weird glasses, and one of those interchangeable singer/actress/ingenue kids who become famous for no apparent reason had to be scarier than anything Hollywood might deliberately try to frighten us with. So I gathered up my courage and walked bravely into the theatre for The Messengers.

And you know, it really wasn't all that scary. Excellent news for me, but bad news for anyone who buys a ticket expecting to be frightened. All the elements were there -- edgy music, dark cellars, mysterious noises -- but somehow, they never quite all came together to scare me half to death like I was expecting. Certainly the house was creepy enough. I know the point of the film is that kids see things adults can't, but I don't see how anyone of any age could look at that place and not think, "Haunted!"

The Solomons -- mom and dad Denise and Roy (Penelope Ann Miller and Dylan McDermott) have packed up their kids and moved from Chicago to some town in North Dakota that's apparently too small to need a name. Roy couldn't find a job in Chicago (?) and has decided to go back to his roots, so to speak, and grow sunflowers like his dad. Teenage daughter Jess (there's always a teenage daughter, isn't there?), played for once by an actual teenager, Kristen Stewart, is of course resentful of the move, and the obligatory cute younger brother (played by twins Evan and Theodore Turner) won't talk due to some vague trauma that isn't explained until the end. In spite of not talking, though, the kid(s) give one of the best performances in the film. Yeah, that's pretty sad.

As the bizarre supernatural events intensify, Jess is faced with the fact that her parents simply can't see what she does and therefore don't believe her. They make vague references to her past problems, which turn out to be much less interesting than I'd hoped, and assume that Jess is just out for attention. By this point, the movie is a weird mix of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds and anything by our friend M. Night, complete with long silences and odd camera angles. And weird lighting. It looks like the first thing they did when they moved in was remove all normal lighting and put spotlights in random places. Day or night, the amount of light coming in from outside is somehow always the same -- that is to say, not enough.

And yet, somehow, it really isn't scary. The ghosts are mainly these vague shapes that skitter around, moving quickly but jerkily, like old stop-motion effects, and once I'd thought of that comparison, so much for getting scared. Mind you, some of the apparitions are really very unpleasant-looking, and I did jump in my seat more than once, but surprisingly, I'm not nervous about going down into my basement. If the apparitions are supposed to be the messengers of the title, though, which I imagine they are, then they really don't live up to their name. They seem more interested in scaring poor Jess to death, or possibly convincing her she's insane, than in trying to tell her anything. The fact that she does stumble on clues to the truth is more because she's one of those silly horror movie characters who never seems to have the sense to run, or at least not to chase after the weird noises. Jess even chases the weird noises in the middle of the night, wearing pajamas and walking around in bare feet, with only her toddler brother for company. That's stupid on top of stupid.

I have a feeling the movie may also have suffered from too much editing. There's a banker (William B. Davis, who played the Smoking Man in X-Files), who has such a knack for appearing out of nowhere that he should really become a thief or something to try and take advantage of that talent. But after materializing twice and nearly giving Roy a heart attack both times, and dropping what I expected to be an important plot point, he then vanishes from the film. Maybe he's a mutant. Jess' boyfriend Bobby (who must have been thrilled to meet a pretty girl he wasn't related to) also seems like something of an afterthought, so perhaps a lot of his scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, too. DVD extras, anyone?

I'll give this one two and a half idols. I'm very grateful to the film for not scaring me to death, but in a horror movie, that's something of a drawback. In spite of that, though, there were some good and fresh ideas buried under the movie cliches, and it's just too bad they couldn't pull them together better. Of course, if they had, I'd be trying to write this review while hiding under the blankets on my bed, and that probably wouldn't have worked out.

Note: Originally posted 2/2007. I had no idea that the teenager here would later turn into Kristen Stewart. Okay, she was always Kristen Stewart, but you know what I mean. It still isn't a scary movie, though.

Image: 
Roy about to go down to the cellar. Honestly, don't these people know better?

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