The Pang brothers’ signature visual pizzazz is strongly displayed in their first Hollywood studio production, “The Messengers,” a haunted farmhouse story boasting excellent atmospherics. Oxide and Danny Pang’s trademark spins on composition, timing and special effects, though hardly groundbreaking (and sometimes downright imitative), are impressively, even joyfully rendered, as if inviting viewer complicity. Unfortunately, this playful artistry seldom jibes with the forced family values plotline. The Pangs painfully hew to a vision of an idealized Americana with the “happy ending” coming off as especially egregious. Pic’s success will depend on auds’ willingness to sacrifice narrative cohesion for an elegant and scary funhouse ride.
Pic’s black-and-white pre-credit sequence, the bloody slaughter of a farm family by unseen hands, plays out in intriguingly fragmented form. Though replete with rather corny horror tropes — crows broodingly roosting on the rooftop, a terrified child clutching his favorite toy as he huddles in a cupboard — these scenes are remarkably and tersely effective.
The present day arrives, amped up to full color, and the Solomons enter, having just bought the murdered family’s farm in a last-ditch effort to save their clan from economic (and personal) disaster.
Pic centers around Jess (Kristen Stewart), the teenage daughter of the Solomon brood. Coyly dropped hints make it clear that her father (Dylan McDermott) and mother (Penelope Ann Miller) have never really forgiven her for whatever disaster has brought the Chicago family to this run-down North Dakota farmhouse. (Film was shot near Regina, Saskatchewan.) A helpful passing stranger with a gun (John Corbett) is hired on to round out the household.
The farm is a template of spookiness, with slamming doors, fingernail scratches on the floor and mysterious signs and shapes. At first, only mute toddler Ben (Evan/Theodore Turner) can see the decomposing ghosts that float or skitter and scuttle around the walls and ceilings, following them with his eyes and pointing up at them with wonder and delight.
Jess’ as-yet-unspecified sin guarantees that once she catches on and confronts the dark forces, with spectacularly destructive results, no one will believe her.
The Pangs bring on a whole panoply of both Asian and American ghostly bells and whistles with restrained panache, oozing ectoplasm or choreographing darting shapes only on the margins of the frame, while ominous camera movements effectively ratchet up suspense. They have a knack for fast-edited, sound-amplified “gotcha” moments, and deliberately stretched-out plays with space and time, taunting viewers by consciously withholding reverse-angles or tweaking sudden perspective-shifts.
Jittery cross-cutting between black-and-white past terrors and present color threats mesh the two timeframes with surprising vigor. Yet, despite fine thesping by all concerned, the violence of the past never convincingly resonates in the clumsily developed family dynamics of the present.
Jess’ screw-up in Chicago, when it is finally revealed, proves a huge anticlimax that seems totally irrelevant to the ghost story. For their part, the ghosts’ sole motives are to indiscriminately grab anyone who ventures into their purview.
Unlike the genre touchstones that pic references (a pitchfork replaces Jack Nicholson’s axe in a “Shining”-like rampage, while a crow attack is an outright homage, if not a steal, from “The Birds”), pic’s morally-loaded tales of family redemption seems artificially pasted onto its evocative spook play.
Though the Pangs prove culturally adaptive on a visual level (Stewart’s angular face, lacking the smooth impenetrability of Asian girls’ visages, is asymmetrically and cubistically framed, creating a more nervous form of otherworldly awareness), they seem completely clueless as to the tonal modalities of Mark Wheaton’s admittedly undercooked, all-American script.
Pic production team includes Sam Raimi (whose “Evil Dead” classics are sporadically evoked) and Joseph Drake (producer of “The Grudge”), but no one managed to bridge the gap between script and direction in this uneven outing. Tech credits are pro.