Friday, 2 March 2007

Messengers, The (2007)

You know it's a horror movie when people make bad real estate decisions at the drop of a hat

If I were to make a horror movie, I'd start with a family of Asian filmmakers who decide to uproot themselves and start live anew in America. Since it's a horror movie, they'd end up making the worst real estate decision of their lives and find themselves living in a creaky old mansion with bad plumbing, moldy wallpaper, and a mysterious dark cellar that you won't want to go down because in it are all the scary ghosts that come along with all mysterious cellars. And with the house comes a curse more horrifying than - our Asian filmmakers will be doomed to make uninspired films that showcase none of the ingenuity, intelligence, or style that they are known for. Now, that would be a horror movie that I'd pay to watch - and not the movies that these filmmakers make. I'm speaking of the wave of Asian filmmakers whose Hollywood chapters of their careers have not been marked by breakout success, but very much the reverse - there are Samo Hung and Chow Yun Fatt in their forays into US television and film, but more importantly Takashi Shimizu, Hideo Nakata as the J-Horror directors who travelled to America to make watered-down remakes of their films.

Joining this sorry bunch of J-horror auteurs are the Pang Brothers, in their US-produced entry The Messengers. One thing about the Pang Brothers' horror films is their strong visual style (Re-cycle being the jewel in their crown), which transform their J-horror-cobbled entries into a feast for the eyes. You can always count on the duo to deliver films based on ideas and motifs that are beginning to wear out their novelty (The Eye was basically an Asian Sixth Sense), yet film them in such a way that still creates an impact.

In The Messengers, the Pang Brothers achieve merely half of their reputation: there is the estranged family fleeing a yet-unnamed recent tragedy, their setting up in an abandoned and decripit farmhouse (both points, incidentally captured in the by-now cliched Drive Across The Country) that was a witness to a spate of horrifying and mysterious events that led to the disappearance (or death) of the previous owners. In typical horror fashion, our family are the rebellious teen, the innocent toddler, the patriarch who obliviously makes the worst employment and real estate choices possible, and the distracted and brittle mother. There is the mysterious door that Leads Downstairs to a cellar where Something Lurks, and Something Else Oozes from the floorboards. There are the ghoulish figures who keep appearing, but only to the mute toddler and the petrified teeen, always appearing near enough to harm them, but never quite doing just that (i.e. The Eye and Sixth Sense style ghouls). And then, bizarrely, there are the host of crows that should black out the sky every time they appear.

There's a problem with all these horror elements, one which the Pang Brothers must not have realised - they're done to death, they're old and cliched, and it means that the only way to jolt audiences is through particularly loud shocks administered by the crows and the speakers in the cinema. If you look at it, this is a huge failure already for the Pangs, who have never depended on loud shocks, false alarms, and flocks of birds to deliver scares before. To add insult to injury, all these horror elements, together with the much of the first half of the film, are so done to death, old and cliched that they've actually been parodied last year by Tobe Hooper in Mortuary, which had a family uproot themselves to a frightfully old building where the dotty matriarch would pursue her new profession of being a mortician while some dark evil oozes from the plumbing...

In the end, there isn't much to recommend in The Messengers, and far less to condemn in it as well. It would do just nice for people who aren't really willing to be scared out of their socks. Fans of the Pangs will find this to be their weakest effort by far, unfortunately.

First published at incinemas on 15 March 2007

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