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Messengers, The (2007) Print E-mail
Friday, 02 February 2007
Screen Gems, the somewhat more exploitational arm of Columbia Pictures, released “The Messengers” with virtually no press screenings. The one I attended today brought forth fewer than ten reviewers. This is usually regarded as a sign that the movie stinks, but actually it means that the studio assumes they have on hand a film which reviews, even favorable, wouldn’t really help. And that may be true for “The Messengers”—but it’s not at all a bad movie. It’s moody, atmospheric and generally well acted.

True, it also doesn’t build its story in an accumulating way—that is, the events of one scene don’t logically build upon events in previous scenes. Instead, it’s a series of vaguely related anecdotes—but then there’s a genuinely surprising plot twist and a satisfying ending. The plot twist doesn’t come within a country mile—and the setting is indeed out in the country—of explaining the majority of spooky happenings. But it IS a twist; the story does have a point. The title is basically meaningless; it’s just a label.

The Johnson family—father Roy (Dylan McDermott), mother Denise (Penelope Ann Miller), teenaged Jessica (Kristen Stewart) and toddler Ben (twins Evan and Theodore Turner)—moves to an isolated, rundown farm in North Dakota. We learn they’re from Chicago, that Roy grew up on a sunflower farm like the one he hopes to start, and that something bad happened regarding daughter Jess back in Chicago.

The movie opened in this same house with two women and a little boy being stalked and killed by someone or something we never see, so the audience already knows that there’s something wrong in or about the house. And the stylish, black-and-white images behind the credits, along with the reliable Joseph Loduca’s score, effectively create a mood of foreboding.

Denise and Jess don’t quite get along; Jess, we see, is feeling some kind of guilt, and Denise doesn’t quite trust her. Young Ben is a cute toddler, but he doesn’t talk—which doesn’t help when he begins seeing strange things that no one else sees. Hunched, gray shapes scuttling up walls and upside down along hallway ceilings, for example.

Many elements seem creepy to us, but to Ben, they’re mostly objects of wonder—it may be telling that he’s rarely frightened by the spooky things he sees. Outdoors, though, there is that flock of crabby crows (played by well-trained ravens) and that strangely sinister real estate agent (William B. Davis, “The X-Files”’s Cigarette Smoking Man) whose stealthy arrivals keep unnerving Roy. The crows are at least temporarily routed by the arrival of John Burwell (John Corbett), a jobless local with a trusty shotgun that scares off the crows. Roy needs help with the farm, and so hires the experienced Burwell. In town, Jess meets Bobby (Dustin Milligan), a local about her own age. Some material seems to have been cut; they meet once—and the next time they meet, they’ve clearly spent time getting to know one another.
But in “The Messengers” time is somewhat fluid anyway. The sunflowers sprout, grow and flourish in nothing flat. Months must have passed for this to happen, but it doesn’t prevent Denise from telling someone that they have “just” arrived from Chicago—long after the sunflowers are nearing full bloom.

The script by Mark Wheaton, from a story by Todd Farmer, is mostly well-judged with good characterizations and well-designed scenes. But it does make those odd leaps in time, where Bobby instantly becomes Jess’s pal and sunflowers raise their golden heads to the sky in not much more than an eyeblink.

During this swiftly-passing time, Jessica encounters the spooks of the house. Poltergeist activity, accompanied by screams (the sound is very inventive, making good use of surround), lots of broken lamps, a toppled staircase banister and other destruction, sweeps through the house while Jess is alone one night with Ben (still unperturbed). She’s almost dragged into the cellar by spectral arms not once, but twice.

But when her parents return home, the house is completely normal; these ghosts clean up after themselves. Weird things continue to happen, but are seen only by Ben and Jess. The wooden cellar floor oozes black gunk, which then disappears without a trace. Under those boards, Jess finds a pocket watch with a photo of a smiling woman. The crows continue to be a spooky nuisance. (The crows and those cellar arms are among the elements the plot twist simply cannot explain.)

But the movie solidly holds our attention; it’s a far better effort than most of these latter-day horror thrillers. The directors are Asian, brothers Danny and Oxide (!) Pang, whose “The Eye” was released in the U.S. They demonstrate expert control over tone and style—“The Messagers” not only looks good (if gloomy), it “feels” good, too. The cast is quite good, and there’s more to these characters than is normal for horror films of today.

The most impressive thing about “The Messengers,” though, may be toddlers Evan and Theodore Turner, taking turns as young Ben. The character follows unseen shapes with a look of wonder; at times, he seems actually frightened, and once is seen crying. The kids are only about two, but their performances are remarkably convincing. Maybe it was the directors, maybe it was the kids’ acting coach, but whoever it was deserves a measure of respect.

“The Messengers” was produced by long-time friends and business partners Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert, through their “Ghost House” production company. They also produced the reasonably good “Boogeyman” of a couple of years ago—and began their careers with the “Evil Dead” movies. They clearly have a collective eye for good material, and know how to marshal effective moviemaking teams.

The movie does tend to get a bit draggy at about the halfway point, and this is because of the script’s failure to create scenes that build upon one another. There should have been a hint that all these events are somehow linked together in a logical fashion—even if it was dream logic. Instead, this thing happens, and Ben watches; then this thing happens, scaring Jess, then something else happens. Finally, it is all brought together in the last third, even if some unexplained events still occur (pitchforks through walls, for example).

But ultimately, “The Messengers” is a well-made, intelligent horror movie, quite unlike the gore fests that seem too often to be what horror has reduced itself to. The story stays focused on the family, and we stay focused on the film.

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