Chances are you've seen a movie like "The Messengers" before; it's a ghost story that makes use of a cinematic setting I call The House that Something Bad Happened In. A few years after this Something Bad happens, spirits make their presence known to the new family that has moved in. If I hadn't already mentioned the title, you might have thought I was just describing the plot of about a dozen other Haunted House films. Unfortunately, you'd be right; "The Messengers" is a completely unoriginal film, recycling every ghost story cliche imaginable. We have the dilapidated, deserted house that has just been sold. We have the long, drawn out shots of characters walking down dark hallways. We have the pop out scares (boy, do we ever). We have ghosts that are sending a warning. And yes, we have the back-story of a murdered family.
But despite the fact that I'm not recommending it, I can't call it a bad movie. This is because, stylistically speaking, it gets everything right. The moments encased in darkness are effectively tense, first by building on and then confirming what we think is going to happen (after a false alarm, of course). The scenes featuring the ghosts only have quick shots, showing enough to be frightening while at the same time keeping their appearances low key. And of course there's the musical score, appropriately combining an eerie children's choir, screeching violin solos, and deep brass undertones. Joseph LoDuca's music for "The Messengers" is a cross between Danny Elfman's scores for "The Frighteners" and "Sleepy Hollow," something that initially bothered me until I realized that such films always use the same musical motifs.
That being said, the plot is nothing more than a rehash, borrowing little bits from films like "The Haunting," "House on Haunted Hill," "Poltergeist," "Dark Water," "The Grudge," "The Ammityville Horror," "Ghost Story," etc., etc. It can't be a good sign when you can predict the ending only ten minutes into the film: by then, you begin to wonder what the point was in creating the story at all. To say that I wanted an original story would be unfair, considering the very nature of ghost stories is formulaic. But I will say that I wanted an old story presented in a new way, which I don't think was too much to ask for. I also would have liked it if the ad campaign had veered away from statements regarding children witnessing paranormal activity; yes, this idea is utilized for the film, but it's not the sole focus of the plot.
And what of the plot? Let's see if I can sum it up in one paragraph: a family from urban Chicago moves to rural North Dakota after some emotional and financial strain. The teenage daughter, Jess (Kristen Stewart) is having a hard time dealing with her parents--Roy (Dylan McDermott) and Denise (Penelope Ann Miller)--because of her past bad behavior. Her infant brother, Ben (Evan and Theodore Turner) is no longer speaking. Their moving to a farm will hopefully reunite the family and get Roy back on his feet (by planting and harvesting sunflowers). But as soon as they arrive, Ben wanders around aimlessly, pointing at nothing, giggling at things unseen. Jess thinks nothing of it until the house exhibits poltergeist activity; furniture and appliances fly around the rooms, and she's almost dragged into the cellar by pale, rotted hands. This sets into motion Jess' futile attempts at getting her parents to believe her. It also sets into motion her mission to discover what happened to the house's former occupants.
Doesn't sound too enticing a film, does it? What makes the film even worse is the slew of other cliched ghost story elements. For one, ominous flocks of crows are prominently featured, with shots taken directly from Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds." Furthermore, there's one room in the house--the cellar--that initially remains locked, only to later be revealed as the source of the paranormal activity. There's also a mysterious item--a toy tractor--that appears out of nowhere and becomes Ben's favorite possession. The farm assistant, Burwell (John Corbett), is enigmatic and somehow ... well, he's a little off. And then there's Ben himself, who's nothing more than a reinterpretation of the Special Child caricature. More than a couple of horror stories make use of this caricature, pretty much to the point of mandatory inclusion. (Can we say "The Shining"? "Rose Red"? "The Sixth Sense"?) Why is it always the creepy child that's special? Why not the creepy mailman? Or the creepy brother-in-law?
To be fair, part of me did enjoy "The Messengers." I definitely liked the film's look, and the ghastly makeup effects were effective. But the way a film looks isn't enough for it to be satisfying; this might have been achieved had the filmmakers opted for an original idea. True, the story would be incredibly different, but at least I'd be able to leave the theater knowing that some effort had gone into crafting a unique film. I can't give that kind of credit to "The Messengers," and I'm sure no one who sees it will be able to, either.