While the marketing may seem enticing, The Messengers is nothing more than a run-of-the-mill haunted house movie, and a poorly made one at that. Columbia/Screen Gems would have you believe it's all about gifted children with supernatural visions (a la The Sixth Sense), but this slow-mover is aimed squarely at teens that get their chills from the Grudge movies -- American or Japanese, either will do.
A murdered family sadly haunts the home in which they met their demise, wreaking havoc on the life and mental state of a teenage girl, as she and her baby brother are the only ones that can see these not-so-grisly apparitions. Why can't their parents (Dylan McDermott and Penelope Ann Miller) catch a glimpse? That's not explained -- if it were, there might have been more meat on these bare bones. Article continues below
So little Ben (twins Evan and Theodore Turner) points playfully at the dead body hanging from the ceiling. And big sister Jess (Kristen Stewart, Zathura, Panic Room) sees her family's North Dakota farmhouse get vandalized, and spies gray-colored, wide-eyed, open-mouthed ghosts that look like they came directly from the set of some J-horror sequel. The adults question Jess' honesty, of course, since she has a checkered past from a previous life in Chicago.
If only the film was shot in the Windy City. Then, we'd have some locations, some energy, some anything. Instead, the Pang brothers direct us into a corner, making the use of a rural setting look lazy and cheap, not ominous or spare. The Pangs wrote and directed the Hong Kong thriller The Eye in 2002, a more elaborate haunting tale that moves well, even shifting countries for its climax. Here, working from a script by first-timer Mark Wheaton (I swear, you can pick the first-time genre scripts out of a lineup), the Pangs are limited in scope and aggressively boring with their approach. They create a plodding rhythm and mistake it for suspense. One sequence takes so long to evolve, and uses so many of the same close-ups, that it's uncomfortably funny.
The Pangs get no help from Wheaton's dialogue, creakier and more wooden than a thousand farmhouse floorboards. McDermott and Miller appear to be hard-working actors that don't often make the top of the casting list -- how sad to nail down a role and have to slog through remedial supporting lines that have no flavor and even less originality.
Which places all the heavy lifting on young Kristen Stewart as Jess. The 16-year-old has some great, natural chops, but she's forced into a lot of face-making and slow head-turning. She's shown her skills before, and she'll soon appear in Sean Penn's adaptation of Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild -- so her future looks a lot brighter than some dingy haunted basement.
It's worth noting that The Messengers is a very tame PG-13. There was certainly the opportunity for more violence, more shock, more discomfort (especially with a toddler in the mix), but this one lays low. Clearly, that's a strategic move to pack theaters and sell DVDs, but maybe there's something positive about a horror film that doesn't go for the jugular, one a younger kid could see with a parent or older sibling. If only it weren't this bad.