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What was that? Stewart in The Messengers.

Standardized Scariness

By Ann Morrow

The Messengers

Directed by Danny Pang and Oxide Pang

Thai-born, twin-brother film-makers Oxide Pang Chun and Danny Pang certainly know their way around with a camera. Their critical-hit, Hong Kong horror movie, The Eye, was praised for its chilling cinematography, which they used in place of special effects. They accomplish a similar feat for their American thriller, The Messengers. Set in an isolated rural area, the film is picturesquely eerie. It also has an intriguing hook: that a small child, one who is too young to know reality from the phantasmal, would have a different perspective on ghosts—even the ghosts of people who appear to have met with a gruesome end.

The plot (adapted from a story by the guy who wrote Jason X) doesn’t deliver on the creepiness of its first half, but disappointed audiences can console themselves with the finesse of the photography, at least until the blundering climax. Unlike The Eye, which had a plausible and unusual premise regarding organ transplant, The Messengers is your standard-issue haunted-house story. The transplants are the Solomon family, who relocate from Chicago to the hinterland of North Dakota to start over after some vaguely-alluded-to troubles regarding teenage daughter Jess (Kristen Stewart). Roy, her father (Dylan McDermott), and Denise (Penelope Ann Miller), have another child, toddler Ben (Evan Turner). Each of the family members maintains a politely strained distance from one another, making it easier for Ben, who looks to be about 3, to be lured away down the long hallways of their dilapidated new home.

Ben sees things: skittery, shadowy things that amuse him at first, and gradually make him more solemn. Whenever the kid is in the picture, the film creates a suspenseful, macabre atmosphere that is effectively contrasted with strangely melancholy images of the sunflower fields and hushed skies that surround the house. And when Ben sees a pair of severed legs under the sheets as his mother unconcernedly billows them over a bed, it’s an original kind of squirm-in-your-seat sequence, made more unnerving by his silent bewilderment (precociously subtle, Turner is a real find). But then the weird human forms start grabbing at Jess, and no one believes her, leading to formulaic mistrust from the clueless grown-ups, who already have reason to doubt her. Even their amiable, unquestioning farmhand (John Corbett) is skeptical of her bruising encounters.

Yet long after the plot’s trajectory becomes obvious—attacking crows are a dead giveaway—the Pangs maintain a grip on the viewer’s imagination with their mastery of ambience: Think Terrence Malick in tandem with M. Night Shyamalan. Which makes the routine ending all the more of a letdown. The Messengers’ most frightening element is the promise of what this talented duo could do with a script that was actually scary.

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