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Hollywood ho-hum horror keeps ripping off the best, turning out the worst

Wednesday, Feb 7 2007
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What could be scarier than yet another PG-13 creepfest serving up pasty, staggering ghouls with stringy hair? Why, the same PG-13 creepfest set against the high-tension backdrop of ... sunflower farming! Sorry, fear fans, if you were expecting a Ferry-Morse catalog of floral fright from The Messengers, the latest Hollywood derivation of the rapidly diminishing Asian horror craze. This gone-to-seed shocker — the first English-language feature directed in tandem by twins Danny and Oxide Pang — tills an overplowed field of fake scares, "surprise" twists, and wall-crawling CGI spooks.

A bone-tired ghost yarn gussied up with eye-blink editing tricks and digital apparitions, The Messengers insults an audience that major studios consider beneath contempt: die-hard horror aficionados. No matter that the opening-weekend turnout of horror nuts is as close to a sure thing as the movie industry has. Indeed, that's the problem: Why bother making something original when the nerds'll show up, rain or shine, for the same repackaged Jaycees-haunted-house horseshit they bought last weekend?

Instead, just take a troubled teen and disbelieving parents (Darkness) plus a little boy who sees dead people (The Sixth Sense, The Ring), throw in the creepy specter of an undead kid (The Grudge) who spider-walks across ceilings (The Exorcist III), then put them all in a house with a bloody past the realtor failed to mention (The Amityville Horror). Add the mad daddy from The Shining, the American-gothic monsters-in-the-cornfield milieu of Signs, and a cameo by the birds from The Birds, and you have a hodgepodge only the press kit can salute for its "vision."

To ground these macabre elements in everyday grit, The Messengers offers Dylan McDermott and Penelope Ann Miller — the least convincing sodbusters since Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor — as the Chicago couple who stakes the fate of their damaged family unit on sunflower futures. (This is the kind of detail-oriented movie that gives the understaffed farm about five shots to get from bags of seed to rippling fields of blossoms.) McDermott, adopting his usual this-underwear-itches scowl, packs up for North Dakota because of a lame Dark Secret involving teenage daughter Kristen Stewart and her mute 3-year-old brother. Once settled in, the little guy starts pointing at nothing and going all Haley Joel Osment, while the daughter sees corpses and visions of furniture smashing. Only hired hand John Corbett and puppy-dog townie Dustin Milligan believe her — and then the bloodstain on the wall suddenly sprouts a human face.

A bold genre stylist — a Dario Argento, or an anything-goes rule-smasher like Japan's maniacal Takashi Miike — might have made an exciting (if no less stupid) movie out of Mark Wheaton's script, simply by imposing a stamp of personal craziness on the material. The Pang brothers, by comparison, are more like skilled investment types. Their Thai thrillers Bangkok Dangerous and The Eye, handsome but empty retreads of cool moves elsewhere in Asian cinema, played like precis for their inevitable Hollywood remakes. The first half of The Messengers, though blatantly derivative, has a couple of familiar but effective boo! moments — the best involving a darkened hallway, some unsettling slight shifts in perspective, and shallow focus that leaves the blurry whatsit in the background chillingly indistinct.

But the Pangs cannot be blamed for the mess The Messengers becomes, at least with any certainty. According to horror Web sites, another director, Eduardo Rodriguez (Curandero), was brought in to do reshoots — a sad irony, since Messengers producer and horror-geek extraordinaire Sam Raimi has his own bitter history of tampered-with projects. Judging by their earlier work, it's hard to imagine the Pang gang guilty of excessive subtlety; at the same time, there's nothing in their filmography as clunkingly inept as the ending here — a nonsensical Hail-Mary pass of a wrap-up that hurls together a crow attack, a pitchfork killer, and the cast awash in a basement full of pudding. The real resolution must be bound and gagged in a closet somewhere, struggling to get to the DVD.

Remember that brief window when the J-horror new wave — from Ringu through Miike's Audition and Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure and Pulse — indicated a way out of the American horror movie's creative and narrative dead ends? Those films jacked into end-of-the-century unease, Internet-era alienation, and electronic-media intrusion at a time when our own thrillers were serving the same reheated teen buffet to AARP-ready Michael Myers. Now, just as worn-ass '90s action movies assimilated John Woo's gun-fu shtick, schlock U.S. shockers have regurgitated Asian horror's most facile tropes to the point of sucking them dry. The jittery ghouls, gaunt demons, and flickering, stuttery specters are everywhere; the ideas that gave them power are absent. Still, there have been, and will be, worse rip-offs than The Messengers — which may be the one genuinely scary thing about it.

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Jim Ridley

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