31 Days to Scare ~ The Messengers (2007)

The Facts:

Synopsis: An ominous darkness invades a seemingly serene sunflower farm in North Dakota, and the Solomon family is torn apart by suspicion, mayhem, and murder.
Stars: Kristen Stewart, Dylan McDermott, Penelope Ann Miller, Evan and Theodore Turner, John Corbett, William B. Davis, Brent Briscoe, Tatiana Maslany, Dustin Milligan, Jodelle Ferland
Directors: Danny Pang & Oxide Pang
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 90 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: One thing I enjoy about these 31 days every year is the chance to revisit some of the films I know I’ve seen but may not remember with as much clarity to have a definitive opinion still.  Like yesterday’s selection, The Skeleton Key, I remember seeing The Messengers in the theater during its original run.  However, it has faded so much in my mind to just a faint shadow of a memory that scanning my wall of movies for a weeknight selection, I had to stop and think if I could tell my partner enough about it to know if it would pass his “too scary for me” test.  All I could say for sure is that it starred a very young Kristen Stewart in her pre-Twilight era…and that was good enough for him.  The rest…well, I hoped for the best.

Like The Skeleton Key, The Messengers was a genre film that arrived when studios traditionally slid this unpredictable box office fare into theaters and hoped something would stick.  Released in the first weekend of February 2007, it opened at #1 and made nearly its entire budget back (16 million) in those first three days.  Subsequent weeks saw the typical significant drop off for these kinds of films, with it being out of the top 10 before the end of the already short month and far outside the top 25 before mid-March.  That’s likely because the critics savaged the film, comparing it to the slew of other movies involving paranormal hauntings coming around that time.

I can’t say I blame the reviewers or the audiences for feeling this way, but that was then and far removed from the onslaught of what was seen as derivative features; viewed today, The Messengers gets the job done more often than it leaves you wanting more.  While it may start to stretch credulity as it strains at the limits of Mark Wheaton’s screenplay based on a story by Todd Farmer, it has built up enough tension and overall goodwill in the viewer that you’re more willing to buy what the cast and directors are selling.

Uprooting their lives to move to a farm in North Dakota, the Solomon family are Chicago transports looking to start fresh.  There’s a reason they want to get out of the city, a cause that’s brought up numerous times in hushed tones and obtuse vagueness but never entirely spoken of until far too late in the story for it to have the necessary payoff.  What you need to know is that daughter Jess (Stewart, Personal Shopper) has to gain trust back from parents Roy (Dylan McDermott, Steel Magnolias) and Denise (Penelope Ann Miller, Kindergarten Cop).  Along with toddler Ben (Evan and Theodore Turner, a marvelously serene and well-adjusted set of twins considering what the film puts them through), the family moves into the farmhouse that screams “move home!” even in broad daylight. 

The Solomons (well, the parents) ignore numerous warning signs and, later, pleas from Jess to get out of their new living space, even turning down a persistent banker (William B. Davis, The Tall Man) determined to help an unknown buyer acquire the land back from the family.  Just as Roy thinks the work of running a sunflower farm (I guess someone must grow them…and they make great visuals later on) will be too much, along comes the laid-back John (John Corbett, 47 Meters Down: Uncaged), a handyman looking for work and a place to stay.

The house continues to exhibit strange behavior, suggesting the presence of an entity trying to get at the family.  At first, only young Ben seems to be able to see them, but soon Jess is encountering the ghosts as well, creepy crawlies that are either slowly prowling out of focus behind the actors or scurrying around the ceiling just out of full sight.  At first, the effects of these scenes elicit nervous laughter, but it gets freaky quick.  Relying partially on jump scares but equally on old-fashioned prickles of fear, the directors know how to stage scenes that build creative suspense.

If the house is indeed haunted and what the goal of ‘the messengers’ get is a bit convoluted.  There seems to be a twinge of cheat filmmaking, with elements from the beginning repeated in the finale but changed to fit the solution.  That’s all well and good, but being deliberately deceived feels like compensating for a script that couldn’t make it across the finish line.  And yet, the movie is often scary thanks to the intelligent approach given to it by Stewart.

Perhaps it’s because we know her as such a deep-well actress now, but even at 15, we can see her talents are starting to fortify.  Our knowledge of the performances she’ll give likely influences our overall feelings toward what she’s doing with the character.  The writing is schlocky and a little trite, but Stewart is never less than 105% committed to believing in her teen struggling to adjust.  It goes far in making us feel what she thinks.  The adults are a mixed bag, each having good and bad traits.  I didn’t believe any of the family was a cohesive unit, despite the presence of Miller and McDermott, two actors I often like. 

Danny & Oxide Pang had been huge in China with their widely regarded horror films, so getting them for their first English-language movie was huge news.  Their visual style is evident from the ghostly apparitions resembling the pale terrors from The Grudge and The Ring, and they handle physicality well.  Is The Messengers an unheralded classic waiting to get its due?  No, I don’t think so.  It is a film far better than I remember it being, providing 90 minutes of agreeable scares and a chance to see how far Stewart has come since her early days before the Twilight films came a-calling.