As I watched The Messengers, I kept wishing that I could have sent a message myself to the directors of the film, the brothers Oxide and Danny Pang. There are a great many areas in which this 2007 horror film comes so close to being a really good film that it feels like it just needed a little bit of work to salvage it.
The premise is a fairly traditional haunted house story, with some obvious inspiration from The Shining. A Chicago family moves to an isolated farmhouse so the father Roy (Dylan McDermott) can take up farming sunflower seeds. The mother (Penelope Ann Miller) has a strained relationship with the daughter Jess, played by Kristen Stewart before the Twilight films made her a household name (for good or ill). And there’s the youngest of the family, Ben, played by Evan and Theodore Turner, who doesn’t speak. As might be suspected, the farmhouse turns out to be haunted, and only Ben and sometimes Jess are able to see the phenomena.
This sort of thing is never mentioned in the real estate brochure.
The film has a fairly small cast. Aside from the family, there’s a boy from town that Jess befriends, played by Dustin Milligan, and there’s the farm hand hired by Roy, played by John Corbett. Both largely spend most of the film as people for Jess to relate to outside of the family. Most of the actors turn in passable, but not great performances. The focus of the film is on Jess pretty much throughout, so the onus of the acting falls on Kristen Stewart’s shoulders. I had not previously seen a film with Stewart in it, so I was not aware whether she genuinely earns the scorn that is sometimes thrown her way. In the case of The Messengers, her acting is definitely a mixed bag. She’s actually pretty good at acting frightened, and since most of the movie calls on her to display that emotion, she does reasonably well. But when she’s called on for anything else, mostly she shows dull surprise. It’s possible a better director could get a better range out of her, but I’m not sure. (Cynically, looking at her resume, I’d have to say that better director hasn’t turned up yet.)
The haunting of the farmhouse has a pretty good suspenseful feel to it, and that plot could easily have been turned into a great film. Unfortunately, the Pangs seem insistent on using standard horror tropes for it, and they just absolutely do not work here. The film opens up with a flashback to the murder sequence, which is not only unnecessary, it throws off the rhythm of the film. The audience isn’t ready to be scared that early, and it’s not that suspenseful yet. Worse, it tips the plot’s hand too early… the audience really needs to discover what’s going on along with that, and that’s ruined by the first five minutes of the film. Then, instead of relying on psychological suspense, which this plot could really benefit from, the Pangs throw in random bird attacks, grotesque skittering zombie-like ghosts, and lots of jump cuts. The ghosts are a necessary part of a ghost story, of course, but there’s too much focus here on how grotesque they are, as if this is somehow supposed to be scary in and of itself. Since they’re aping Stanley Kubrick in some respects, the directors should take a lesson from him and keep things simple. Ghosts are scarier when they look almost normal.
The toddler’s not intimidated, and neither am I.
The jump scares are even less forgivable. Executed properly, jump scares are essentially a release of tension. You build up the psychological fear, have something scary happen, and people who are on the edge of their seats scream. Then you can start over again. Get them a couple times during the film, or save it up for one big one. But you don’t have jump scare after jump scare after jump scare. That’s just pointless. There’s no time for tension to build, and all you’re getting is a knee-jerk reaction — pretty much literally.
The Pangs use jump scares liberally and wastefully. They come fast and frequent, and at some of the stupidest things. BAM! Realtor shows up, previously hidden from view. He’s as scary as he is relevant, which is to say, not at all. BAM! Toy tractor moves. BAM! Bird hits window. These are executed as jump scares, but they aren’t even slightly scary, so the scare chord just comes across as being truly laughable.
This may be my rural upbringing speaking, but a bird hitting the window isn’t horror, it’s morning.
And yet, despite all the flaws, there’s the meat of a decent film in here somewhere. It just needs a ton of fat trimmed off of it. Cut the prologue, cut the pointless scenes with the realtor. Cut out most of the jump scares. Get a little more emotion out of the actors. This film is so close to being a worthy contender it’s almost painful to watch it fall short. But that’s what happens when people are determined to make use of all the standard horror tropes whether they fit or not.