Kristen Stewart as Jess
Dylan McDermott as Roy
Penelope Ann Miller as Denise
John Corbett as Burwell
Evan Turner as Ben
Theodore Turner as Ben
William B. Davis as Colby Price
Brent Briscoe as Plume
Dustin Milligan as Bobby
Jodelle Ferland as Michael Rollins
Tatiana Maslany as Lindsay Rollins
Shirley McQueen as Mary Rollins
Anna Hagan as Doctor
Blaine Hart as Charlie
Directed by the Pang Brothers
Owing more to “Poltergeist” and “The Amityville Horror” than the recent spate of J-horror disasters, the Pang brothers’ sense of style often overcomes the lack of substance in this derivative scarefest.
After having problems in Chicago, the Solomon family moves to a remote North Dakota farmhouse to start anew, but their attempts at an idyllic farming life is disrupted when their teen daughter Jess (Kristen Stewart) and her 3-year-old brother Ben start seeing and being attacked by supernatural beings who won’t allow them to live in peace.
The Pang brothers’ 2001 horror film “The Eye” may be one of the scariest films of the last decade, but it also got a bit of a spanking for being so derivative of “The Sixth Sense.” For the brothers’ first American film, they’re likely to get similar allegations of borrowing from other horror movies, yet somehow they find a way to take many unoriginal ideas, transplant them into a Midwest farm setting and bring their unique Pang Vision to what has become a rather tired horror genre, the ghost movie.
After a jarring black-and-white flashback of a family being terrorized by some unseen force, we meet the Solomon family, a typically dysfunctional quartet who’ve moved to the outbacks of North Dakota to get away from the problems they had in the city. Their mute 3-year-old Ben immediately starts seeing things, followed by his older sister Jess (Kristen Stewart), though in her case, they lead to violent attacks by white corpse-like creatures. Meanwhile, their father has hired a ranch hand (John Corbett) to help get their crop of sunflowers to harvest, though they’re both constantly dealing with masses of crows that appear ominously over the farmhouse and attack them without warning.
No, the movie doesn’t win any points on originality and the involvement of “The Grudge” producer Sam Raimi might make you think they’re going for a similar copycat look and feel. The fact that the family killed in the house was Asian (for no apparent reason) makes comparisons to “The Grudge” that much easier, so the look of the ghosts and how they came to be are just too close for comfort. We’ve seen a lot of the rest too, as the movie blatantly references classics like “Poltergeist” and “The Shining” and “The Others.” At least the remote North Dakota setting and the fields of sunflowers gives “The Messengers” its own distinct atmosphere with a fine job done by the production design department in bringing that setting to life. Although the swipes from other movies makes a lot of it predictable, the film is at least somewhat cohesive, which is not something you can always say about the movie’s J-horror peers.
At a certain point, the Solomon family’s backstory seems almost irrelevant; they’re essentially just another troubled family who comes to a new place to escape their problems only to face more supernatural ones. The dialogue isn’t great, and at a certain point, you almost instinctively turn-off when there’s a bit of a respite from the scares to develop the characters. But honestly, do we really need to know that Jess was in a drunken driving accident that injured her younger brother to enjoy see them being terrorized by ghosts? No, probably not.
Unlike plenty of other recent horror films, the cast isn’t so bad that you immediately hate all the characters, which makes the family drama parts of the movie easier to consume. The tension between Dad Dylan McDermott and his rebellious teen daughter is almost de rigeur for this kind of movie, but Kristen Stewart goes through the entire movie looking almost bored, though not so much whenever she’s not being violently attacked. McDermott is stronger as a lead though he disappears for a good portion of the film, while an almost unrecognizable John Corbett steps in for a great turn as the mysterious ranch hand. The film’s true scene-stealers are the young Turner twins, who without saying a word come across the best, maybe since they don’t have any of the bad dialogue of the grown-ups. Unlike the creepy kids we’ve seen too much of, they’re actually kind of adorable as they playfully interact with the ghosts, creating an eerie way of letting the audience know when they’re being led back into scare mode for a while.
And that’s where the movie truly succeeds, in delivering the scares, something that can’t be said about way too many recent horror films. A lot of that has to do with the eerie look and feel brought to the table by the Pang brothers, who really know how to shoot things in a unique way to keep it visually invigorating. Because of their vision, the entire film looks so much better than so many other low-budget horror knockoffs. Their technical team works together as a tight unit to give everything about the Solomon house and farmyard a heightened creepiness, and the Pangs know when to use lush cinematic scoring, creepy ambient sound effects and silence to best effect in creating tension and building up to each climactic moment. Sure, there are plenty of cheap scares and the CG ghosts tend to look a bit wonky–the mix of real and CG crows is a bit more fluid–but the overall tone of the movie is well done.
The Bottom Line:
Despite the abundance of well-worn cliches, somehow “The Messengers” is able to overcome many of the problems faced by the recent ghost movie trend. For one thing, it is indeed scary and most of that has to do with the Pang brothers’ sense of visual style and the way they’re able to create a mood. If one were able to fast forward over the talking and attempts at a plot, this may have been one of the best ghost movies in recent memory.