Tuesday, July 03, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: The Messengers (2007)

I saw the trailer for The Messengers some months ago on Time Warner's Previews-on-Demand channel and got myself a good case of the creeps over it. The central location looked good (a rotting old farmhouse in North Dakota), the cast had some recognizable faces (Dylan McDermott, Penelope Anne Miller, John Corbett), and there were some ghoulish and well-done "ghost" compositions that really jolted me (particularly one involving a bed sheet and a corpse...). All in all, I felt that The Messengers looked...promising.

When I received the PG-13 film from Netflix and started to watch it, my opinion didn't change, at least not immediately. I noted from the credits that this was a Ghost House production; meaning that Sam Raimi was a producer...and his horror credits are certainly impeccable. And Joseph LoDuca, the composer from the original Evil Dead trilogy has crafted here a creepy, memorable score. The lead actress, comely and intense young Kristen Stewart, is also a believable performer. I have to compare her to leads I've seen lately in recent horror flicks (When a Stranger Calls leaps to mind...) and she compares favorably. She exudes intelligence and believability.

Which is more than I can say for the film's script.

But I get ahead of myself. To re-cap, The Messengers opens in stylish black-and-white as a young boy and his mother are attacked in their North Dakota farmhouse by what appears to be a malevolent - and powerful - supernatural force. It drags Mommy down the stairs and across the floor while the little boy hides in the kitchen. This scene is well-edited and overall pretty creepy. A good start...

Some years later, a down-on-their-luck family from Chicago, lead by Roy Solomon (Dylan McDermott) and his wife, Penelope Anne Miller, buys the land (and the house) in hopes of starting up the old sunflower farm again. They have with them their two children, teenage Jess (Stewart) and mute little Ben. Although we don't learn for half-the-movie what the deal is, Jess is paying penance with her family for a mistake she made in Chicago; a mistake that hurt Ben and made him go silent.

As the family settles in, Dad meets two locals. One is The Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) from The X-Files. He claims he's a bank official representing another party who he wants to buy the property. The other local is a sensitive farm hand, John, played by John Corbett. He stays on and agrees to work for free until the sunflower harvest. Meanwhile, inside the house, Ben is seeing disturbing visions of weird, unquiet ghosts. Before long, Jessica is seeing them too. And then, on one evening when she is home in the house with just Ben, there's a poltergeist attack, and Jessica is nearly pulled down the stairs by the seemingly malevolent spirits. And did I mention that a murder of crows circle the property at all times, threatening to swoop down and attack the family?

Nothing much happens in the first half of the movie and yet I didn't hate it. The compositions boast a cockeyed look about them; an off-kilter sensibility that I enjoyed and kept me off balance. And, there's a tremendously atmospheric scene in which Jess and Ben walk around the house interior and Jess asks her little brother to point out the invisible ghosts to her. He does so, and I must tell you, it's creepy as hell. There's a moment in this sequence wherein Jessica and Ben are looking one way, and an out-of-focus something moves towards them --- coming forward (and into focus...) from the background. This image of approaching terror is not easily forgotten and it's quite potent. A lot of the movie's first half is just like this: stylishly-vetted "little" moments that you hope will build to real terror later.

But then, about two-thirds of the way through, The Messengers goes off the rails with a narrative twist so stupid and banal that it literally ruins the rest of the film. It's the worst third-act "surprise" you'll find in a horror film this year, and probably any year. This twist is preceded by a horrible CGI crow attack, comes up out of the blue and leads us into a series of horrible flashbacks revealing what "really" happened to the family from the prologue. And the performance that's related to this "twist" is atrocious. It's a bad bit of miscasting; the actor who vets the material is waaay out-of-his-depth and it's obvious. Even embarrassing.

Unfortunately, the twist is so important to the plot that it sort of retroactively pisses on all the parts of the movie you liked from the first half; because you now realize none of it made any sense whatsoever in light of the new revelation. Among the many questions you may ask yourself while watching: why does the cellar door spontaneously unlock when it does? Why is the cellar floor sometimes earthen and sometimes not? Is the "earthen" floor real or an illusion (because matter has to go somewhere...). Worse, given what we learn at the conclusion of the film, why do the ghosts make contact with the family in terms that are so clearly "an attack?" Also, who is the Cigarette Smoking Man, and how does his character really fit in with the narrative? Lastly, a film grammar question: why - even when things are resolved - don't the directors alter their cockeyed compositions?

By the end of the film, you realize that the writers haven't been playing fair with you; and that the story seems to be made up as it goes along. I'll tell you, that truly upsets me, because I wanted to write a good review today. I wanted to watch a good horror movie. For me it's always more enjoyable to write a positive review than a negative one, so I get no pleasure from the fact that The Messengers turns out, in the end, to be just another dopey PG-13 horror flick of shallow characters and nonsensical plotting. I had high hopes for this one, and they were dashed.


  1. Michael A. De Luca10:02 AM

    As an admirer of Joseph Loduca's work, might I suggest "Thou Shalt Not Kill Except...", instead?

  2. Anonymous6:26 PM

    my coworker said it was like an alfred hitchcock film

  3. Howard Margolin7:38 PM

    If you do enjoy Joseph LoDuca's work, allow me to recommend the full-length interview I did with him on May 19, 2006 about his score for "The Triangle," which can still be heard at www.captphilonline.com/Destinines.html.