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Messengers, The Print E-mail
Monday, 01 October 2007

Image Roy Solomon (Dylan McDermott) and his wife, Denise (Penelope Ann Miller) move from Chicago to an abandoned sunflower farm in North Dakota. The Solomons are financially depleted due to the health problems of their infant son, Ben (Evan Turner) who was injured in a car accident in which their 16-year-old daughter Jess was the driver. The previous residents of the farm disappeared several years back (but as seen in the black-and-white prologue, were clearly murdered by an unseen presence), so the Solomons were able to buy the land and weathered farmhouse for a very low price. Upon arrival, Roy finds an unsettling number of crows on the land, which seem particularly aggressive and hard to scare off. While Denise doesn’t find anything out of the ordinary, young Ben can see frightening specters, which Jess begins to notice as well. As the ghostly presences become increasingly aggressive and physical toward Jess, she finds that her tales fall on deaf ears as her parents have lost all faith in her since the accident and feel she is acting out. As the new sunflower harvest is about to come in, the haunting escalates until even hired-hand Burwell (John Corbett) is attacked by possessed crows and the family finds themselves in a frantic fight for their lives.

Notable Korean directors (and twin brothers) Danny and Oxide Pang are mostly known for 2002’s “The Eye” and its sequel. The duo directed several other genre films, including one in English (“The Tesseract” from 2003), but this is their first major American film in English. The duo’s unique sensibility adds a tangible air of unpredictability and freshness to a fairly routine, tried-and-true scenario. The sunflower-farm setting is unique and the contrast between the brightly lit fields, open landscapes and sunflowers with the pitch black terror that lies within the shadowy farmhouse is boldly effective. Scenes such as the one where Denise flutters the duvet cover onto the bed in a room lit only by sunlight makes the audience privy to an impartially-seen pale, bloody specter standing just in front of her, within the shadows cast by the bedclothes. It’s a terrific moment that induces a nice frisson, and is all the more effective because Denise cannot see it. There are several moments of equivalent power throughout the film. Most of the strongest presences are visible only to little Ben, who indicates the phantasmal presences by pointing at them. Ben has been mute since the car-accident in the backstory and so is incapable of describing what he sees. But we can see them; every time he points off-screen it raises the hair on the back of your neck, particularly in those brief moments before we’re shown what he’s reacting to, where your imagination fills in what it could be.

More aggressive aspects of the ghosts tend to disappointingly replay that kind of twitchy, crawly phantasms on display in the Japanese hits “The Grudge” and “The Ring” which have been redone ad infinitum in dozens of copycat films and remakes ever since. The Pangs make particular use of the soundtrack to boost several scare sequences and poltergeist attacks by using extremely loud pounding sounds and explosive room-rattling atmospherics to shock. It’s a bit of obvious technique— quiet suspenseful scenes interrupted by a sudden loud crash but at least we’re spared the clichés of the cat jumping through the window or the sudden hand on the shoulder.

The cast is uniformly solid’ Kristen Stewart does a fine job making Jess a very sympathetic teenage lead. The script thankfully eschews giving Jen the clichéd bratty-in-your face teenage attitudes, obnoxious rebellious behavior, and resists making her a teen fashion clothes-horse. The nature of the haunting is legitimately surprising and the film is constructed in such a way that it’s hard to be too far ahead of the turns of the story. Avoid looking too closely at the packaging, though, as one of the images on the back cover is a major spoiler. While “The Messengers” doesn’t tread any new ground, genre-wise, it’s a capable, better-than-average door-rattler (quite literally at times) and one of the more solid horror efforts of the last year.

“The Messengers” is beautifully photographed (by David Geddes) with rich, evocative visuals. The Blu-ray release is a stunning, perfect replication of the original photography. The imagery’s densities were tweaked slightly to make the film a touch more saturated. Colors are bright and vivid when called for, such as the sunflower field or the copse of trees behind the farmhouse. Faces are color-timed so they appear a tad darker, dirtier, more weathered. The high-definition transfer is a high benchmark. Patches of black, so important to this horror film, are rich and dense evoking the degree of mystery and suspense required. Dark basements, shadowed corners and dim storage areas become areas of possible danger, increasing our involvement with the story. The mix of bright outdoors and dark interiors can be a volatile in both editing and video compression, but here are handled flawlessly. The imagery is consistently clean, with razor sharp clarity, detail and rock solid image stability. The 5.1 uncompressed PCM track is an intense experience. The audio mix is a loud, highly aggressive track full of loud explosions of noise, banging and violent crashes. The master volume needs to be set a tad on the high side to make the dialogue and lighter sound effects audible, and once the scenes of violent poltergeist mayhem begins, the thunderous soundscape becomes terrifying and startling, to an almost punishing degree. Surround effects are frequent and evocative, with both rear channels used for separate discrete aural incidents. The bass is used heavily throughout and the violent poundings have a tangible, realistic presence. It makes for a thrilling, vibrant home theater mix that has as much impact as the theatrical mix.

The extras are a worthwhile, satisfying package. The seven behind-the-scenes featurettes cover all the salient aspects of production and offer interesting tidbits on the working style of the two directors. The most interesting note is that the directors alternate shooting days, unusual to say the least, but apparently effective for the highly simpatico twins. Interviews with most of the primary participants in the film and well-chosen on-set footage gives the featurettes a tad more insight that a typical promo reel. The audio commentary features actors Kristen Stewart and Dustin Milligan, screenwriter Mark Wheaton, and visual effects supervisor Bruce Jones. It’s an amiable track, more casual and anecdotal than detailed. It conveys the warm relationships between the participants, the working atmosphere on-set and is mostly filled made up of convivial banter and the odd observant comment.

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