The Messengers Review
The Solomon family – father Roy (Dylan McDermott), mother Denise (Penelope Ann Miller), their toddler son Ben (Evan and Theodore Turner), and their ray of sunshine of a teenage daughter, Jess (Kristen Stewart), pack up their belongings and head out into the middle of Nowhere, North Dakota to start a new life in a creepy old country farm.
WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG???
In the pre-credits prologue, we’ve already been treated to scenes of a mother and her young son being menaced by an unseen presence in the house – a presence with enough strength to haul furniture and fully grown adults from one location to another. Therefore, it comes as no surprise when the two children begin to see and hear strange goings-on in the house – things like entire rooms being trashed by poltergeists and disembodied hands trying to drag Jess down into the basement. Those well-versed in the clichés of scary house movies should also not be too surprised when the parents, possibly the biggest idiots in the history of horror movies, refuse to see the obvious and instead accuse their “difficult” daughter of deliberately making trouble. Because everyone knows that scary old houses in the middle of nowhere, whose previous owners abruptly disappeared, can’t possibly be haunted.
The Messengers, the yet another horror-lite offering released under Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert’s Ghost House Pictures label, was helmed by Hong Kong brothers Danny and Oxide Pang, who five years prior gave us The Eye, an altogether more impressive beast. Sadly, their fall from grace, evident in this tame and unimaginative textbook of clichés, is all too symptomatic of what tends to happen when non-American hot-shot directors make the trip to Hollywood. That said, while the Pang brothers themselves are far from blameless, the bulk of the blame can probably be levelled at the script, a reworking by newcomer Mark Wheaton of a screenplay by Todd (Jason X) Farmer, which is filled with more holes than a Swiss cheese and plods by so languidly that the relatively brief 90 minutes stretches out into eternity. There is precious little in the way of internal consistency: without giving everything away, the way in which the ghosts behave towards the family makes absolutely no sense once the full facts of the situation are disclosed, while an early gimmick in which they appear only to the children is inexplicably abandoned the moment the filmmakers realise they have written themselves into a corner with it.
To their credit, the Pangs do on occasion attempt to spice things up, throwing in a handful of mildly interesting set-pieces, the strongest of which features one of the house’s spirits creeping up on Jess and Ben as they stand in the hallway in the middle of the night. It’s one of the few moments that actually generates anything approaching tension beyond the typical “Boo!” scares that are peppered liberally throughout the film, and it reminds me of a similar moment in J.A. Bayona’s superior The Orphanage, another horror movie from 2007 centred around a haunted house. The remainder of the film simply demonstrates a complete dearth of imagination. Basically, if you’ve already seen The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist, or any other horror movie featuring the same basic premise, you’ll know what to expect. The Pangs, in their folly, even try to rip off The Birds, which, on the scale of bad ideas, falls somewhere between poking a wasps’ nest with a stick and standing in the middle of a motorway during rush hour. When your movie already appears anaemic in comparison to Hollywood’s less than impressive recent slate of horror movies, the last thing you want to do is to invite comparisons between your work and that of Hitchcock.
Even the actors look utterly bored, with Dylan McDermott faring particularly badly as the father and Kristen Stewart – hot stuff at the moment thanks to her role in Catherine Hardwicke’s Twilight – seemingly on the verge of narcolepsy throughout. I first encountered her in her role as Jodie Foster’s daughter in Panic Room, which, for my money, is still one of the best child performances since Natalie Portman’s turn as Matilda in Luc Besson’s Léon, so her half-hearted performance here comes as a real shock. At least, though, she escapes with some of her dignity intact; the same, unfortunately, can’t be said of Penelope Ann Miller, whose shrill overacting is up there with nails scraping on a blackboard in terms of annoyance. Actually, the best performances come from twin brothers Evan and Theodore Turner, who alternate as three-year-old Ben (child labour laws presumably having necessitated this doubling up). The fact that the character is mute, and is therefore unable to spout any of the scripts inane dialogue, definitely helps.
A friend of mine once commented to me, in relation to another film entirely, that writing anything about it was a challenge because you can’t review thin air. I find myself in exactly the same boat with The Messengers: it doesn’t exist in a tangible form so much as it merely floats around in the ether for 90 minutes before promptly disappearing without a trace. It’s neither obnoxious nor offensive... it just is, which I would argue is just about the worst thing a film can possibly be. If you want to watch a recent ghost house movie, I recommend The Orphanage, which exploits the premise far more effectively and actually creates something approaching a lasting impression. Unless you have trouble sleeping, give The Messengers a miss.
In what seems like a sick joke on the part of the authoring team, Momentum’s Blu-ray Disc (UK, all regions) is very nice indeed. In addition to an impressive Dolby Digital 5.1 (640 Kbps) track, which does a fine job of highlighting the fact that lossless audio is not necessarily always the be all and end all of HD sound, the 1.78:1 transfer is very nice indeed, particularly given that it is an MPEG-2 encode on a single-layer BD25. Are there any imperfections? Well, there is some block noise in the shadows at times, as well as a small number of instances of banding on gradients, and some minor quantisation that really shouldn’t be visible during “normal” playback. Otherwise, I didn’t notice any major issues when watching the film on a 123” display, so, barring these niggles, there’s nothing to complain about at all. Except the film, that is.
Optional English subtitles are provided for the film but not the extras.
The UK release includes the following bonus features:
- Audio commentary: In the absence of the brothers Pang, poor Kristen Stewart is saddled with the unenviable task of introducing and chairing this track, which also features screenwriter Mark Wheaton, actor Dustin Milligan, visual effects supervisor Bruce Jones and producer Jason Shuman. Filled with awkward pauses and pointless asides (Stewart tries to explain what attracted her to the project but more or less gives up), you can tell the participants don’t really want to be there and have little information of value to impart. I have nothing against filling a disc with bonus content if those involved have something to say, but the simple fact is that extras produced simply for the sake of existing are pointless. Some films just don’t require commentaries, and this is the poster child for such a situation.
- Webisodes: We also get half an hour’s worth of short featurettes, each focusing on a different aspect of the production – the Pangs, Stewart, the set design and locations, the script, etc. Some of this is actually vaguely interesting – the Pangs, for example, go into a little detail regarding their directing style (for instance, only one brother is on the set at any given time, while the other works on editing the footage shot the previous day) – but it’s all geared around selling the film rather than actually delving into it in any detail. (Total running time: 28:17)
- Exhuming the Messengers: If the film wasn’t torture enough, we now get to spend a further 38 minutes with the people responsible, in this 7-part behind-the-scenes documentary, which basically provides more of the same. At least the Pang brothers show up this time, but, for the most part, though, it’s the usual EPK guff and is best avoided. (Total running time: 38:01)
- Trailers: In addition to The Messengers’ theatrical trailer, trailers for various other Momentum BD releases also appear when you insert the disc, all of which must be skipped manually before getting to the main menu.
With the obvious exception of the commentary, all of these, barring some of the Momentum trailers, are presented in standard definition.
Click the image above to enlarge to full size.
Unless a nice transfer is enough to win you over, I can’t see any reason to go out and pick up a copy of The Messengers. And, even if you feel the need to subject yourself to this film, a more technically impressive version – AVC encode, lossless PCM audio track – has been released in North America by Sony Pictures. Not having seen that edition, I can’t comment on how much of a difference these specifications make, but theoretically it should both look and sound better than this one. The biggest point in the Momentum release’s favour is that viewers in the UK will be able to rent it rather than forking out good money for it like I did. Take my advice and steer clear.
4 out of 10
9 out of 10
9 out of 10
4 out of 10