"The Messengers" isn't a remake of an Asian horror film, but it certainly seems like it. Directors Danny Pang and Oxide Pang are responsible for "The Eye" and its sequel, and this, their premiere American picture, plays like "The Grudge
"-lite set in a farmhouse. Too obvious to be frightening and drenched in a plodding familiarity, "The Messengers" only really comes alive in the passing moments where a family's mounting deterioration strikes some bristlingly raw notes. Otherwise, it's just more of the same, leading to a dopey climax that was either a reshoot or a poor idea from the get-go.
With some tough and troubled times behind them, a family hoping to make a fresh startteenager Jess (Kristen Stewart), father Roy (Dylan McDermott), mother Denise (Penelope Ann Miller) and toddler brother Ben (twins Evan and Theodore Turner)move from the bustle of Chicago to a run-down sunflower farm in rural North Dakota. Almost immediately after settling in, Jess is terrorized one night while she is home alone with Ben. She is positive that the house is being haunted by something or someone, but without any physical evidence to back up her claims, her parents and the local police are skeptical. Not one to give up without a fight, Jess decides to take matters into her own hands. As her research into the dark history of the house brings her closer to the truth, it becomes clear that she and the rest of her family aren't safe if they stay there.
Yet another supernatural thriller about ghostly apparitions and corpsy children, "The Messengers" covers all the predictable bases without locating an identity of its own. The depiction of the dysfunctional family unit and the mystery surrounding their own past is as solid as the movie gets. Their uncomfortable interactions seem real and aren't sugarcoated, with Jess struggling to make amends over a shameful indiscretion, Denise torn between the love and mistrust she feels for her daughter, and Roy stressed over a financial undertaking that could either better them or leave them penniless. More often than not, these human elements must take a back seat to ineffective jump scares that are glaringly telegraphed in advance, and a screenplay (by first-timer Mark Wheaton) that sets up a bunch of different plot threads, but never forms a cohesive whole. Details about where the film leads cannot be discussed, lest its secrets be given away, but there isn't an unforeseen twist among them.
The full story, once it reveals itself, is pat and lackadaisical, leaving plot holes in its wake and a suspicion that there must have been a fair amount of cutting-room floor footage. As the film spins its wheels, Jess continually places herself in compromising situations so that the next so-called fright can occur. There are a couple intense scenes, the best being one in which Jess senses something is lurking behind her, and Ben, whom she is holding, starts to reach out to the unknown entity, but they work solely because the Pang Brothers know how to heighten suspense through deliberate editing and adept camera framings. Mostly, these moments make Jess come off as a dim bulb who does dumb things at the wrong times.
Kristen Stewart (2005's "Zathura
") give a dignified and emotionally vivid turn despite Jess' written deficiencies in the smarts department. With the knowledge that there are ghosts stalking her, Jess thinks nothing of it when she investigates a dark barn, witnesses the door shut and lock on its own, and sees a figure crouched in the corner whimpering. Any sane person would be taking a hammer to the windows and getting the hell out of there, but she actually approaches the foreboding stranger and asks if everything is all right. Nonetheless, Stewart does fine work as she tries to convince her parents that she isn't lying about the danger headed their way.
As Roy and Denise, Dylan McDermott (2001's "Texas Rangers
") and Penelope Ann Miller (2001's "Along Came a Spider
") get to play characters with a tad more dimension than this genre usually calls for in the parental department. McDermott adamantly displays the frustrations of a man trying to save his family while watching it crumble around him, and the underrated Miller is powerful as a mother who likes to think that she is the glue holding everyone together, but doesn't even know how to relate to her own daughter. Lending less than exemplary support, John Corbett (2004's "Raise Your Voice
") wrestles with a poorly defined character as Burwell, a shotgun-toting vagabond who is hilariously given a job, a place to stay, and is invited in for lunch all within a two-minute span of the family meeting him. And finally, though no fault of the actor's, Dustin Milligan (2006's "Final Destination 3
") sticks out in a negative way as the totally superfluous Bobby, a teenage boy whom Jess befriends. There is no point to his character, although there might have been in an earlier cut; that Roy knows him by name at the end without having shared any previous scenes with him is a dead-giveaway of this.
Stylistically competent though it may be, "The Messengers" is quite a mess in regard to its heavy-handed horror plot. The way all the pieces come together in the end is anticlimactic and rushed, failing to reward those viewers who have stuck with it throughout. Scares are on the low side, too, with a tendency toward CGI that simply cannot compete with practical effects, and conventional-looking specters that have been seen in every other film of its type in recent years. Aside from a handful of atmospherically delivered shots and some sporadically astute character work, "The Messengers" doesn't deliver.