The Messengers

Most of what constitutes the “new wave” of Japanese “J-horror” or Korean “K-horror” is not so much a new or even foreign style of genre filmmaking. Sure, there are folkloric elements involving pale dead girls with long black hair but this isn’t the vibe that’s actually making the films crossover. It’s all about “the bus”.

Val Lewton’s classic series of chillers produced for RKO in the 1940s and beginning with Cat People were designed around very realistic, workaday storylines with believable characters encountering the mysterious. They also featured long sequences of tension and dread which were relieved with a moment of sudden horror that would have the audience leaping from their seats in shock. Cat People introduced the concept by having Jane Randolph being pursued down a dark city street in total silence only to be startled by the sudden sound and image of a bus pulling up in front of her, the doors opening with a cat-like hiss. From this point on, the gag was known in Hollywood as “the bus” and horror films made the best of it.

“The Bus” can be incredibly effective if doled out honestly and only two or three times MAX per film. If used every 10 minutes it can begin to have the opposite, though not unconnected, effect of generating screams of laughter. I think this is actually Takashi Shimizu’s point with his Grudge series which is at least 6 films deep now. All of the films in that series become hilarious as one jump gives way to the next and the next. It’s absurd, a parody of a real horror movie and actually a work of abstract filmmaking, less like a narrative film and more like a haunted hayride. Kids like it, because with all the jolts, they have no time to get bored. And bored they would be if they had a few minutes to digest a plot that would make a porno seem literary.

Here’s what The Messengers uses for it’s story: Roy (Dylan McDermott) and Denise (Penelope Ann Miller) have packed up their family and moved to a really absurdly run down Munsters-like haunted house in North Dakota (played by Canada) because they think this is the best way to reform their "troubled" teenage daughter, Jess (Kristen Stewart). Jess is upset over having to leave behind all her friends to live in American Gothic-land while her dad hires John (John Corbett), who steps out of nowhere and is just way too nice. He helps Roy plant sunflowers. Seriously. These guys are sunflower farmers. Soon, Jess starts to “see dead people” but when she tells Mom and Dad they don’t believe her. It seems she once got drunk in the city and crashed her car. Jess discovers that she alone has to deal with the ghosts who seem to be really angry at someone who may not be who he seems. Who could that be? Hmmmm. The crows (played by ravens) seem to know.

This story is weak but oddly screenwriter Mark Wheaton actually seems somewhat invested in it and almost makes you think that with a few rewrites it could make for a decent young adult character drama. There are interesting touches such as having Roy be offered a large sum of money to sell the house for a profit which he decides against without telling his wife. This seems like a trace memory of The Shining since Roy loves it there so much he begins to act selfishly and irrationally. There are also traces of the real life horrors of not being able to pay the bills and the stresses this puts on a family. These are interesting ideas and a great horror film would’ve used them to power the narrative. But none of these touches matter since the script completly falls apart in the third act as a slasher movie plot takes over to allow for the pre-requisite screaming and running around that cause these movies to all self destruct. The film is “bus” crazy with one jump after another having no effect at all. Besides that, will someone please find a new way to depict ghosts onscreen besides the usual stop-motion crawl? Something familiar is never scary and this is now very familiar.

The Pang brothers, Danny and Oxide, gained worldwide attention with their very successful supernatural thriller, The Eye, which is currently being remade starring Jessica Alba. They are not J or K-horror filmmakers but rather specialize in T-horror as they are from Thailand. Or rather they specialize in whatever trend is most marketable since they usually hop on whatever bandwagon is making the most money. But this does not mean they aren’t good filmmakers. They have a very strong sense of craftsmanship and there is no reason why they would’ve made a movie as badly constructed as The Messengers - unless they didn’t.

Foreign filmmakers seem to be so anxious to come to America and shoot a Hollywood film the way foreign baseball players all want a major league contract, preferably with the Yankees. It works well in baseball, but much less so with filmmaking. Hollywood calls out to these artists to have them bring their talents to some generic American film and then are suddenly shocked when they actually make something interesting with the material which might challenge the profit making formula.

When the first press releases emerged that the Pang Brothers were going to make their US debut with The Messengers the plot that was announced was somewhat different. At that time, it was described as a ghost story in which a man moves his family to a rundown rural farm and as he makes repairs and replants the fields, finds himself slowly losing his mind and becoming obsessed with the place. Now this is clearly the Shining rip-off I mentioned earlier, but honestly it’s the best part of the movie. With all the production delays and titlings and retitlings, I seriously wonder how much of that plot was shot and removed from the film since they are many small traces of it in McDermott’s performance and parts of scenes which suggest that this was really the original story.

Ghost House Pictures, set up by Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert following Raimi’s gold mine success with his Spider-Man films is a real disappointment. What was supposedly a way to produce strong small-to-medium budget horror films has turned into a money making scheme producing PG-13 garbage to steal money from teenagers’ wallets over the first weekend. All of the films they’ve produced from The Boogeyman to The Grudge and now this mess all feature one similarity: Producer interference. It’s obvious from the beginning that these films are all tampered with in post production, from adding extra CGI ghosts in the background of “boring” scenes to reshoots which stick out like sore thumbs, adding plotlines to the movie which deny the very point of the narrative itself.

This film was rumored to have been taken away from the Pang brothers and have added scenes shot by newcomer Eduardo Rodriguez who I guess should be excused for needing the work.(Eduardo Rodriguez Gotta Eat!) Also note the number of times additonal dialogue is dubbed in during long shots to change the context. This is patchwork filmmaking designed by a corporate mentality devoted only to the defense of the lowest common denominator. All audiences should find this offensive, since it represents a total lack of respect for the viewer who is assumed to be stupid and easily duped. Total garbage. The Messengers is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) and enhanced for 16x9 televisions. The special features include a commentary with star Kristen Stewart, writer Mark Wheaton, Dustin Milligan, and visual effects supervisor Bruce Jones. This is very informal and chatty and there is a real sense that they’d all rather talk about another movie besides The Messengers.

There is one 37 minute featurette which is broken into smaller chapters called Exhuming the Messengers. It has interviews with producers William Sherak, producer Jason Shuman, producer Rob Tapert, director Danny Pang, Penelope Ann Miller, William B. Davis, director Oxide Pang, John Corbett, visual effects supervisor Bruce Jones, screenwriter Mark Wheaton, Dylan McDermott, cinematographer David Geddes, Kristen Stewart, Dustin Milligan, production designer Alicia Keywan, and raven trainer Ota Bares. The featurette has some interesting background on the set design showing how the house was constructed from scratch on location. No mention is made of any reshoots or changes and the Pang brothers seem to be in charge. This must have been shot the week before they were canned.

A set of trailers for other Sony DVDs is also included but not a single trailer for The Messengers itself. That’s fine. The movie itself is long enough.