Messengers, The (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

I define a "boo!" moment as an instant in a movie when there is a loud sound, usually accompanied by a musical stinger and occasionally in concert with the fast pass of an unidentifiable object across a portion of the camera's field of view. The idea behind a "boo!" moment is to startle viewers. Most horror fans are conversant with "boo!" moments but if you're confused, The Messengers offers a primer. It's wall-to-wall "boo!" moments with almost nothing else to recommend it. By the end of the film, these instances have become so frequent that they're more comedic than horrific. (People in the audience took the "boo" to heart because that's how they reacted when the movie ended.)

It's a little sad that The Messengers is ultimately a good candidate for burial in a toxic waste dump because there are some good elements contained herein. The underpinnings of an effective psychological thriller are undermined by the manner in which the story is told. (Is the lead character seeing ghosts or is she mentally unstable?) And there are some frighteningly effective isolated images that, if used in service of a smart or coherent storyline, could have made this one of those rare PG-13 horror movies that works.

The Messengers borrows so heavily from The Amityville Horror, The Birds, The Grudge, Poltergeist, and others that it has no room left for anything of its own. At times, this feels like "Horror's Greatest Hits" performed by imposters. Of the actors, only Kristen Stewart takes things seriously as the girl who sees dead people. Everyone else can't seem to believe they signed to be in this movie.

Roy (Dylan McDermott) and Denise (Penelope Ann Miller) have packed up their family and moved to a spooky old house in the middle of nowhere because they think this is the best way to reform their "troubled" teenage daughter, Jess (Kristen Stewart). Jess has done something wrong - we figure this out when her father sits with her to have a "this isn't a punishment; it's a way to start over again" discussion. Poor Jess is despondent over having to leave behind her friends to live in the ultimate fixer-upper while her dad and his new hired hand, John (John Corbett), plant sunflowers. Soon, Jess starts seeing ghosts but when she tells Mom and Dad, they're not receptive. They accuse Jess of making things up because all teenagers act up by pretending that their freaky-looking mansion in the middle of nowhere is haunted. Who writes this stuff, anyway?

As if the family dynamic aspect of the film isn't silly enough, the movie completely loses it when it introduces a pitchfork murderer subplot in the last 30 minutes. Apparently, it's no longer good enough to have a haunted house movie in which the ghosts are malevolent for no apparent reason. Nowadays, everything has to have an explanation. It's like claiming that Michael Myers was evil because he was abused as a kid. Horror movies want to give their villains cause to plead "not guilty by reason of insanity" to multiple murder charges.

Early during The Messengers, it's easy enough to ignore the movie's moronic domestic intrigue and painfully bad character development because the Pang Brothers (Hong Kong vets making their English language debut) generate a strong sense of isolation and atmosphere. The sequence in which the ghosts reveal themselves to Jess is tense and creepy (and comes complete with a couple of the ubiquitous "boo!" moments). Unfortunately, the more the movie concentrates on its inane plot, the more unbearable it becomes. The ending is cataclysmically bad, but the build-up is such that we expect it.

To the extent that an audience exists for PG-13 ghost stories that employ stupid plot contrivances and out-of-left-field twists to avoid making no sense whatsoever, people will see The Messengers. One thing is for certain: those who pay for the dubious privilege will get their money's worth of "boo!" moments. That arguably qualifies this as a great date movie. The clutching may never stop.

Messengers, The (United States, 2007)

Director: Danny Pang & Oxide Pang
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Dylan McDermott, Penelope Ann Miller, John Corbett
Screenplay: Mark Wheaton
Cinematography: David Geddes
Music: Joseph LoDuca
U.S. Distributor: Screen Gems
Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2007-02-02
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1:30