Monday, 27 August 2012

The Messengers (2007)

Dir. Danny Pang, Oxide Pang
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Dylan McDermott, Penelope Ann Miller, John Corbett 

At last! A horror movie that is actually scary! It seems like I’ve sat through an endless stream of duff horrors so far this year (though the total figure is actually closer to half-a-dozen). So far the scariest has probably been The Shining. It has just been topped by a film of which I had not previously heard. 

I will admit that the shocks are manufactured ones. They come from sudden movement and sound cues. The scary elements have been recycled from numerous other inspirations, from The Birds to Ringu. Also, the denouement is a let down, revealing the (somewhat mundane) truth of what actually happened to the previous inhabitants. But the setting is good – I had no idea that the creaky old farmhouse had been built especially for the film, or that the interior scenes were recorded on sound stages – the direction is inventive, the visual effects good, and the cast are believable (until the aforementioned denouement).  

The action surrounds the Solomon family. After struggling in Chicago father Roy (Dylan McDermott) relocates them back to his home state of North Dakota. He buys an abandoned farm and aims to support his family by growing sunflowers. Meanwhile there is an obvious coolness between his wife Denise (Penelope Ann Miller) and his daughter Jess (Kristen Stewart). Rounding out the household is mute toddler Ben (played by Evan and Theodore Turner). The audience knows in advance that something horrific happened in that house from the pre-credits scene, showing a family getting killed by an unseen force. So the audience know to look out for the tell-tale signs such as scratch marks on the floor, stains on the walls and a child’s toy tractor at the back of a cupboard. At first it is just Ben who senses the presence of others in the house. But when he and Jess are left alone in the house (following an attack upon their father by a flock of crows) she too witnesses a supernatural force throwing the furniture around. Dead grey arms almost succeed at pulling her into the cellar. Thereafter the supernatural occurences become more and more threatening, with the dead Rollins family looming out of the dark and the crows gathering in number above the farm. 

I’m quite surprised that I had never heard of this film before. It has a ‘name’ cast, including Penelope Anne Miller (Carlito’s Way, The Relic, The Artist), John Corbett (Sex and the City, My Big Fat Greek Wedding) and Dylan McDermott (who played Jackson in Steel Magnolias). Sci-fi nerds can also get their ya-yas from a cameo appearance from William B. Davis (AKA The X-Files’ Cigarette Smoking Man). Plaudits must go to the younger cast members however. I had seen Kristen Stewart with a small part in Into the Wild, but other than that only knew her as the annoying one from Twilight (which I haven’t – yet – seen). I was impressed with her performance. She really does carry the movie as the ‘ordinary sullen teenager with issues’ who is plunged into something horrific. However, and bearing in mind how much I usually hate child actors, I have to reserve my strongest praise for for the Turner boys who played Ben. Considering that they had dialogue-free roles (at least, until the end) I thought they were brilliant as the mute toddler following the action with his eyes and with his ever-pointing finger. 
Team Edward decided to teach K-Stew a lesson

Looking on the internet I see that The Messengers has not got very good reviews. Yes, I admit that it is somewhat derivative. And yes the scares come from sudden great chonking chords on the soundtrack. But it does well at creating an air of suspense and creeping terror. This is more than any other horror movie I have watched this year has managed to achieve and so I must report back favourably on The Messengers if only for that reason. It is well worth a viewing for an evening’s spine-tingler. 

What have I learnt about North Dakota?
It is very different to Chicago. I imagine the big cities must lure people away from the state. Roy obviously moved from N.D. to Chicago at some point in his past. Bobby (Dustin Milligan) says that there isn’t much for young people to do in their unspecified small town. Being bad at basketball and picking up on local gossip seem to be the biggest hobbies. Tne local feed store still has newspaper clippings on the noticeboard of people who left town five years ago. 

The terrain is suited for agriculture, and the growing of sunflowers for their seeds is one such agricultural pursuit.  Such an existence seems quite a marginal pursuit however. Everything depends upon the harvest. Bad harvests can bankrupt a farm. The local grain and seed supply stores must know this, so they take a risk letting even new farmers pay for only half their seed up front and giving them credit until the harvest. Essentially, farmers have to economise throughout the year and then pay out all their bills once the harvest comes in. 

Can we go there?
Nowhere in the film does it specify whereabouts in North Dakota the Solomon’s farm is located. It has been commented on the internet that the hills that can occasionally be seen must position it in the western part of the state as the east is exceptionally flat. 

Actually, The Messengers was filmed north of North Dakota’s western border. It was filmed in Saskatchewan, Canada. Interiors were filmed at the Canada Saskatchewan Production Studios in Regina. One hour east of Regina the farm was constructed from scratch in a suitably rural area. The actual location was a valley south of Abernethy and east of Katepwa. 

Overall Rating: 4/5

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