Director: Danny Pang and Oxide Pang
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Dylan McDermott, Penelope Ann Miller, John Corbett, Evan Turner, Theodore Turner, Dustin Milligan, William B. Davis
MPAA Rating: (for mature thematic material, disturbing violence and terror)
Running Time: 1:24
Release Date: 2/3/07
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Review by Mark Dujsik
As though there weren't enough toned-down horror movies that borrow heavily from other toned-down horror movies, here's The Messengers, with a title that tells you everything but means very little to the events of the actual movie. There are no messengers here, and whatever message they don't say is only discovered by complete happenstance. Actually, the entire mess of the final act could have been avoided early on if these spiritual forces had actually cared to give a message, but nope, they wait until everything (and by that I mean nothing) falls into place (just kind of happens), giving absolutely no time to stop it. Clearly, the plot makes no sense. This is the American debut of Hong Kong directors Danny and Oxide Pang, who steep the decidedly Americana material (a farm in North Dakota) in Asian horror motifs (or just the one of creepy, pale people crawling really quickly). The scare tactics are tried and just as tired as they always are. There are lots of false scares, grabber moments, and even more moments of pure anticlimax.
After a prologue featuring a family becoming victims of an unseen force, the Solomon family is on their way from Chicago to North Dakota where they plan on starting a new life. Daughter Jess (Kristen Stewart) is none to happy with the relocation, but patriarch Roy (Dylan McDermott) thinks he can save the family from their financial woes by starting a sunflower farm. Jess barely talks to her mother Denise (Penelope Ann Miller) without getting into a fight, and her younger brother Ben (Evan and Theodore Turner) just doesn't talk. The farm is dilapidated after years of being abandoned, and Roy spends his time fixing things up. On a trip to town, Jess meets a boy named Bobby (Dustin Milligan), and Roy gather supplies to start his sunflower farm. Things begin to look up for the sunflower farm when a mysterious drifter named Burwell (John Corbett) saves Roy from crows eating the vital sunflower seeds and offers to work for food and board. Meanwhile, strange things are happening in the farmhouse that only Ben can see, but Jess slowly begins to sense a presence as well.
So what are these apparitions, and what do they want other than to spend their time scaring the bejesus out of Jess? And why do crows continue to make a presence at the farm? Haven't Roy or Burwell ever heard of a scarecrow? And what did Jess do that makes her father say that the move wasn't a punishment? There are lots of questions the movie raises, and instead of spending any time exploring the haunting and its causes, the Pang brothers (working off a screenplay by Mark Wheaton) are more concerned with throwing out as many attempts of jump-and-laugh (you know: oh, that was scary, ha) moments as possible. A toy tractor starts up when Jess reaches for it, a shape under a cloth turns out to be nothing, etc. It's the usual formula of building up to a false scare then hitting the audience with the real one, but then again, that's only when those moments don't end on the false scare. There's one particularly useless scene where the Pangs draw out the scare to ludicrous lengths. Ben points to something behind her and Jess, and it's followed by close-ups of his finger, her forehead, the back of his head, hints of shape, and pounding bass on the soundtrack.
It builds and builds (is it finished yet?) and builds, and when they finally turn around, there's nothing there. Fade to black, and another anticlimax ends. Dragged out even longer is the mystery behind Jess' past, hinted to so many times, it becomes a running gag. The very loose threads of a plot are here, but it's all bait and switch tactics. It turns out the key to unraveling the mysterious semi-warning the ghosts are trying to give rests in a pocket watch, which Jess finds early on in the movie and leaves on her dresser to collect dust when it won't open. The watch eventually opens on its own, after it's been completely forgotten by everyone, and that's just the first step of the frustratingly hollow script to actually start an ending in motion. In the process, a heretofore gentle character's murderous past is awakened by the pecking of a murder of crows, and we make the discovery that Bobby actually keeps an axe under the seat of his truck. By the time the movie is finished, it pulls out not only the killer-isn't-really-dead trick but also the victim-isn't-really-dead one.
It should be noted that Kristen Stewart actually does some solid work here, in spite of her character's lackadaisical detective work, and Jess becomes a slightly sympathetic figure. Her performance keeps The Messengers from the complete dregs, but the movie is still lots of build-up and very little payoff.
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.