Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Take a memo: 'Messengers' is all style, little substance

“The Messengers” is the latest film to attempt to capitalize on the popularity of Asian horror and while it isn’t a complete failure it lacks any personality of its own.

After the success of 2002’s “The Ring,” a remake of Japan’s “Ringu,” the floodgates were opened for more of the same. Remakes of other Asian horror films such as “The Grudge” and “Dark Water” followed.

In some cases the original directors were brought on board to direct these remakes. Are Americans so afraid of subtitles that we are reduced to hiring foreign directors to redo their own work in English?

“The Messengers” is the English language debut for Hong Kong directors the Pang Brothers. Their film “The Eye” is being remade – not by them – starring Jessica Alba. “The Messengers” is not a remake, but it matters well be because it doesn’t have a single original idea.

Initially entitled “Scarecrow,” the film focuses on a family leaving behind a troubled past in Chicago to become sunflower farmers at an isolated farmhouse in North Dakota. Nothing says family bonding like moving to the middle of nowhere, the Torrance family of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” learned that all too well. Yes, someone will go mad and chase the family around with an ax in “The Messengers.”

Early forms of screenwriter Mark Wheaton’s script were about a scarecrow that came to life because of dark forces from the house’s sordid past. The Pang Brothers thought it would be better to have various spirits throughout the house instead. At the end of the day, the film is just another haunted house film.

Wheaton took the Pangs’ various suggestions and the resulting script is a hodge-podge of Asian horror motifs. All the familiar elements are in place: vengeful spirits, pasty ghosts, icky dark water and a child connected to the spirit world. It is all cobbled together in a way that says nothing new or fresh.

Just for good measure, the film throws in a pesky group of ominous crows that hang around the farm and occasionally attack people. The obvious lift is Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” and the filmmakers admit as much. Even so lingering birds will also remain creepy and the film yields some of its best material from these spooky black birds.

Lack of originality doesn’t necessitate that the film is bereft of scares. The Pangs know how to compose atmospheric shots with eerie lighting and awkward angles. The movie is big on cheap scares that make you jump, but builds little prolonged tension. It is a movie best watched in the dark with a good sound system.

The film’s lead is rising teen-star Kristen Stewart in her first lead role. She showed talent playing Jodie Foster’s daughter in 2002’s “Panic Room” and has become an attractive young woman, but she isn’t given much to do in “The Messengers.”

Stewart spends the first part of the film looking sullen about her family’s move and then the rest of the film pouting because no one believes she sees and is being attacked by ghosts. She acts scared well enough and has a definite screen presence, but this is not the film to showcase her acting chops.

Dylan McDermott (“The Practice”) and Penelope Ann Miller as Stewart’s parents are sufficient, with McDermott leaving the stronger impression. McDermott and Stewart share a couple father/daughter scenes that hold weight, but they are out shined by similar thematic scenes that Stewart has with John Corbett (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) as a drifter that is hired as farm hand.

“The Messengers” isn’t a bad film, it is just a standard one. If you want quick, disposable scares you can do much worse, but if you want goosebumps that stick you will have to look elsewhere.

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