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February 2, 2007 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | February 2, 2007 |

On the heels of Hideo Nakata and Takashi Shimizu, Danny and Oxide Pang had the good fortune to be making movies in time for Hollywood’s infatuation with J-horror (though they’re actually from Hong Kong). The Pang brothers’ moderately creepy thriller The Eye was taken in as part of the resurgent East Asian horror genre, and thus gobbled up by producers and primed for an American remake (due next year). In the meantime, Danny and Oxide (seriously … Oxide?) have been given the reins for The Messengers, produced by Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures.

I guess what surprised me the most here was that The Messengers wasn’t awful. Thus far these J-horror directors have been unsuccessful in transplanting their very Asian imagery and mythology into American-made films. Yes, there were some creepy turns in the remake of The Grudge, and Gore Verbinski was able to replicate the original Ringu fairly well, but it took barely a year for the ubiquitous images of scuttling white ghosts to lose their edge, and the market was flooded with watered-down re-creations like Pulse or abysmal wannabes like Stay Alive. As usual, the industry is too taken with the idea of aping the popularity of one trend to maintain any creativity, so the J-horror train will keep on rolling even if it has already derailed.

The Messengers follows one family’s flight to North Dakota, where unemployed pater (Dylan McDermott) hopes to start a sunflower farm. The rest of the family is uneasily along for the ride: Mom (Penelope Ann Miller) is overprotective and restless while daughter Jess (Kristen Stewart — who is already being groomed as a future hottie-starlet) is in the throes of teenage disaffection. There’s also a toddler, Ben, who is mercifully silent. It’s obvious there’s a tension underlying the family’s past, and it’s only much later that we’re told under what circumstances they’ve moved.

As pappy learns to farm with the aid of an affable drifter (John Corbett), Jess and Ben begin to notice strange shit of the haunted-house variety — creepy sounds abound, as do those damn scuttling ghosts! Most of these episodes are of the flash-bang variety, as weird images or noises blast out of the periphery to startling, though seldom scary, effect. Jess is pretty late in realizing what exactly is amiss, and when she does, of course, no one believes her.

Oddly, the main actors in The Messengers all appear to be has-beens still in their prime; McDermott, Miller, and Corbett all bring a lazy restiveness to their roles, but can’t contribute to any suspenseful ambience. Stewart, to her credit, doesn’t ratchet up the cheap melodrama, but also doesn’t provide the immediacy necessary for us to fear for her character. The story is a very familiar ghost yarn that meanders for a while before offering up a strangely predictable climax. The Pangs do tender a few scenes of calamity that are genuinely frightening, but the overall dread The Messengers intends to provide is never sustained.

There’s too much diffidence here to make a decent horror film, but The Messengers isn’t as bad as some of the J-horror fluff out there. The Pangs seemed genuinely interested in telling a ghost story instead of proffering up attractive leads and ungainly melodrama for its own sake. As far as cursory creepiness goes, I’ve seen far worse; so long as the viewer doesn’t expect to care, there’s probably enough here to be entertaining.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.

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