The Messengers

Movie Information

The Story: A dysfunctional family moves to a sunflower farm in North Dakota only to discover their new home comes complete with hot and cold running ghosts. The Lowdown: Nicely made, but a completely derivative spook show that's ultimately sunk by a silly and incredibly sloppy script.
Genre: Horror
Director: Danny Pang and Oxide Pang
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Dylan McDermott, Penelope Ann Miller, John Corbett
Rated: PG-13

There’s an old Hollywood saying, “If you want to send a message, go to Western Union,” a concept referring to studios preferring simple entertainment to “message pictures.” In the case of The Messengers, it might have helped if the filmmakers had paused somewhere along the way to decide what message they were endeavoring to deliver. Even after sitting through the film, I certainly haven’t a clue what message the unseemly entities were attempting to convey. However, I should think there might be less extravagant means of communicating than throwing an entire banister at someone or unceremoniously dragging them by their feet into the cellar.

I also think that both coherence and originality must be very low on the list of priorities for Hong Kong filmmakers Danny and Oxide Pang, who make their English-language debut here. Granted, they’re at the mercy of the silly derivative screenplay by Mark Wheaton (from a story by the author of Jason X). The Internet Movie Database tells us that Wheaton wrote “over 1,000 questions” for a Fangoria trivia computer game, which may explain the complete lack of originality here.

Nonetheless, Messrs. Pang and Pang were presumably around and might reasonably be expected to notice such discrepancies as a female doctor (TV actress Anna Hagan) referred to as “he” in one scene, or how the family has been devastated by two years of hospital bills because of an accident that we’re later told happened six months ago. And why is the creepy banker (William B. Davis, the “Cigarette-Smoking Man” from The X Files) so keen to buy the beleaguered sunflower farm back from its new owners? Certainly someone should have noticed such problems, but either no one did, or no one cared.

The setup for all this is somewhere between Horror Movie Basic 101 and the realm of unintentional hilarity. A dysfunctional family—comprised of three B-list actors (Kristen Stewart, Dylan McDermott and Penelope Ann Miller) and twin toddlers (Evan and Theodore Turner) who play one child—leaves the urban world of Chicago to operate a sunflower farm in North Dakota. The theoretical upside of this quest is that a bout of rustication will heal the fractured family, especially Troubled Teen Jess (Stewart). We don’t learn just what Troubled Teen Jess did to make her so troubled until late in the movie, but from the way her parents treat her you’d think she’d been smoking crack and cruising for sailors on the Loop. (It turns out to be nothing so extravagant.) Of course, they’ve really tumbled into a hotbed of horror in North Dakota—pretty much like the Torrance family in Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), which this movie would dearly love to emulate. Unfortunately, the results are closer to Boogeyman (2005) or, worse yet, Darkness (2004).

This is one of those movies with endless “things” flitting in between the camera and the characters, always accompanied by a loud burst of music. It’s also one of those movies that only functions because the characters keep doing stupid things—like not noticing the painfully obvious fingernail marks leading to the cellar door, or inviting the all-too-friendly itinerant stranger (John Corbett) who shows up out of nowhere to take up residency with them (my theory is that Corbett walked there from Alaska when Northern Exposure was cancelled). The movie also throws in some antisocial crows. I’m not sure why, except maybe the crows needed work—what with filmmaker Victor Salva being between Jeepers Creepers movies.

The truly sad thing about all this is that the film actually contains several very accomplished scenes of genuine horror and a few moments that are truly unsettling, suggesting that the Pangs could have made a much better film. Maybe next time they will. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, disturbing violence and terror.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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