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Shooting the Messengers

by Glen Baity

Here’s the scenario: Your family has just moved from the sleepy Chicago suburbs to a long-abandoned sunflower farm in North Dakota. You frequently find yourself alone in the dilapidated lean-to you now call home and you constantly hear noises emanating from dark corners or, worse still, the dank basement that’s illuminated by a lonely 25-watt light bulb.

Do you: 1) investigate those noises; 2) tell your parents you never want to be left alone in this deathtrap of a house again, ever; or 3) run away from home and hitchhike back to the Windy City?

If you chose anything besides option one, I’m sorry, but your specific worldview will never be incorporated into a crappy late-winter horror movie.

The Messengers is the latest entry into the booming genre of utterly pointless PG-13 haunted house stories, jam-packed with idiotic characters and plot twists that are either completely predictable or nonsensical (though the plot twists of this latter variety are, somehow, predictable as well).

Dylan McDermott plays Roy Sullivan, father to sullen teenager Jessica (Kristin Stewart) and young son Ben (Evan and Theodore Turner), and husband to Denise (Penelope Ann Miller). Due to some vaguely-referenced difficulty in the city, he uproots his family and heads for the country, seeking stability on the wrong side of nowhere.

But the Sullivans’ new country home – surprise, surprise! – has seen some trouble in recent years: Bad harvests have ruined more than one farmer’s livelihood, and then there’s the matter of the family that was slaughtered in the basement. Time, experience and a lot of movies exactly like The Messengers might tell you that there are spirits here eager to rattle some chains.

Indeed, for all its unwelcome familiarity, The Messengers is unique only in how easily forgotten it all is. In one scene, Jess, home alone with Ben, is assaulted by flying furniture, flickering lights and rumbling walls and floors. The police, prompted by her breathless 911 call, show up to investigate, and though she tries in vain to explain what happened, all she really would’ve had to say is, “Did you see Poltergeist? It was like that.”

Which could, incidentally, sum up the whole of this film. Have you seen The Amityville Horror? The Haunting of Hill House? It’s like that (though there are also, for a strange sort of variety, a few scenes lifted from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds).

And since we’re living in the 21st century, there are also wall-crawling, twitchy ghouls on loan from The Grudge, as well as a former “Sex and the City” cast member (Jon Corbett) for the ladies.

The Messengers tries to differentiate itself via one plot point not contained in the films it shamelessly plagiarizes: For reasons that are never explained at all, only the children can see the evil spirits that haunt the farmhouse, a device that inadvertently results in several melodramatic “why-don’t-you-believe-me” conversations between Jessica and her parents. These scenes are made all the more delectable by the fact that Stewart appears to have attended the Neve Campbell School of Screen Acting, with her constant pouty-face and irritating, vacant angst.

Scripting a by-the-numbers crapfest like The Messengers can’t be very difficult, which makes it all the more bizarre that several key plot points turn on naked contrivances and outright stupidity, even by D-level horror movie standards. To name only one example: Corbett’s character is Burwell, an itinerate, shotgun-toting field hand who just happens by the farm one day and strikes up a conversation with Roy. So what does Roy, the father of a 15-year-old girl in the year 2007, who knows less than nothing about this guy, decide to do? Why of course, he invites Burwell to stay at the house, work on the farm, and routinely asks him to “keep an eye on the kids.”

Yes, shotgun-toting stranger, please see that no harm comes to my nubile teenage daughter while I run to the feed store for a few hours!

If you can believe that, you probably stopped reading this review several paragraphs ago, and I’m sure you’ll be taking in this breath of fresh air at your next available opportunity. Contrarily, if you’ve ever seen any haunted house movie or heard a single ghost story, you might want to spend your pre-summer movie dollar on a film with at least one original bone in its body.

Rattle some chains in Glen Baity’s attic when you send your e-mail to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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