Coming rather late in the post-'Grudge' Japanese-inspired wave of PG-13 horror, 'The Messengers' is the horror movie equivalent of week-old bread. Filled with nearly every cliche of the haunted house flick, you'll have far more success counting the number of creaking doors and flash-cuts to pale dead kids than you will bumping into a single fresh creative idea during the film's 84-minute runtime.
The film begins like all haunted house movies -- with a flashback to the Horrible Past Incident that sets up the spooky shenanigans to come. In this case, a family in a remote North Dakota farmhouse is attacked and disappears, birthing local legend that the house is haunted. Five years later, in moves the Soloman clan, a young family eager to make a fresh start. Earnest dad Roy (Dylan McDermott) is still reeling from a failed business venture and is hoping to start anew as a sunflower farmer (no joke). Wife Denise (Penelope Ann Miller) isn't so sure about her husband's plans, but she's more concerned with punishing daughter Jess (Kristen Stewart) for a drunk driving incident that left the family's infant child, Ben (Evan and Theodore Turner), a mute.
At this point, 'The Messengers' could go one of two ways: it could continue to explore the family dynamics and use the whole ghost backstory to create a palpable sense of impending dread and drama, or it could resort to all the usual lame genre conventions and now-hokey "surprise" twist ending. Unfortunately, it picks the latter. From the very first frame, there is nothing new in 'The Messengers,' with every plot twist and jump scare obvious from a mile away.
To be fair, haunted houses are staples of the horror genre, and even the best movies of this ilk (the original 'The Haunting,' 'Poltergeist,' 'The Changeling') aren't wholly original. But they do at least make things interesting by introducing compelling characters and uniquely spooky monsters. 'The Messengers' doesn't succeed on either count. Though Stewart ('Panic Room') has a scruffy, likable quality as Jess, both McDermott and Miller play their roles as complete cliches -- the whole family dynamic feels false and ultimately has little to do with the ultimate reveal. And post-'The Grudge,' are creepy little ghost-kids with pale faces really scary anymore?
To the film's credit, at least its production values are up to snuff. 'The Messengers' has a suitably faux-gritty look, with all its Hitchcockian camera angles and moody atmospherics. The film's inspired score by Joseph LoDuca is also an interesting genre effort, bringing in an almost country-esque feel that hints at a more unique approach to the material that might have been. Alas, unless you are totally obsessed with creaking doors and long, long, long shots of shadows at the end of dark hallways, you probably won't find any satifying scares in 'The Messengers.'
Sony serves up a highly-stylized 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer for 'The Messengers.' The film's heavily color-tinted, contrasted look is nicely served, with an immaculate source. Only the opening moments are a little rough -- the black and white prologue seems a bit too pumped up, resulting in some obvious banding and an edgy look. Thankfully, once the film switches to color, things quickly perk up. Hues are unnatural but not so intense that bleeding is a problem, and fleshtones are about as realistic as can be expected. Contrast is slightly hot but detail remains generally strong, especially in daylight sequences. Depth is also above average, if not truly exceptional for a new release. The only real issue I spotted are some jagged edges visible on highly-contrasted objects and in slow pans -- the endless fields of sunflowers sometimes break up and look very digital. Otherwise, 'The Messengers' is a vivid and often moody transfer that supports the film well.
Talk about things that go bump in the night. The sound designers behind 'The Messengers' seem to be so in love with creaky doors and shock sound effects that there really isn't much else going on in this soundtrack. It constantly veers between overly loud and a bit too quiet -- although, given that this is a horror film, I can't argue that the sonic gimmickry isn't somwwhat effective.
Sony offers up their typical uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track (48kHz/16-bit-4.6mpbs), and technically it's quite strong -- low bass is loud but tight, and (despite the film's medium budget) dialogue never sounds cheaply recorded. However, the aforementioned volume issues can sometimes be annoying at high levels -- words have clearly been subdued in the mix to make the shock stingers sound even louder, but that's no substitute for genuine scares. On the bright side, the surrounds are quite active, with not a single eerie sound effect failing to be exploited in the rears. The sense of transparency to channel pans is also quite effective, and particularly impressive is the twangy score, which in my opinion is the strongest element of the movie. Ironically enough, 'The Messengers' might be scarier film if you keep your eyes closed.
'The Messengers' hits both Blu-ray and standard-def DVD concurrently with a couple of supplements, and while this package isn't particularly hefty, at least all of the video-based supplements are presented in full 1080p.)
Things kick off with a screen-specific audio commentary featuring stars Kristen Stewart and Dustin Milligan, plus screenwriter Mark Wheaton and effects supervisor Bruce Jones. The the fact that the film's directors, the Pang Brothers, are not part of the group leaves this commentary feeling a bit haphazard, but Stewart in particular shows a genuine interest in what others have to say, and helps keep the track moving. Unfortunately, none of the on-set stories are anything more than bland or jokey (Milligan in particular seems to make fun of just about everything). This one's for diehard fans only.
The only other supplements specific to the film is a 37-minute documentary, "Exhuming 'The Messengers,'" which is divided into seven parts: "Pang Vision," "Script Evolution," "Constructing the Set," "Kristen Stewart: Rising Star," "John Corbett: Unexpected Villain," "Meet the Crows" and "Exploring Visual Effects." This doc is a pretty standard making-of. All of the main cast and crew offer on-set interviews, with plenty of plot recap and such ridiculous bon mots as "This is not just another haunted house movie!" (Yeah, whatever.) However, adding some interest are the sequences focuing on Pang Brothers, identical twin brothers making their American directing debut with 'The Messengers.' As one of the cast members wryly notes, they would direct "on alternate days," while their native Korean forced them to rely even more on non-verbal storytelling.
Unfortunately, there's no theatrical trailer for 'The Messengers' included in this package. There are, however, some spots for other Sony Blu-ray titles 'Stomp the Yard,' 'Ghost Rider,' 'Blood & Chocolate,' 'Catch & Release' and 'The Grudge 2' -- the latter is a particular surprise, since it hasn't officially been announced for Blu-ray release (although it has been rumored for months).
'The Messengers' is a very standard, post-'Grudge' haunted house flick with little to recommend. Diehard genre fans may find it spooky enough to warrant wasting a rainy Sunday afternoon on, but all others will likely be bored. This Blu-ray release, however, is quite nice, boasting a sharp transfer and soundtrack, and even a couple of okay extras.