There is much to be said for letting a horror film build slowly. The audience moves from the everyday world into one where the unknown lurks with intentions that seem anything but friendly. And so it is with THE MESSENGERS, the latest from the Pang Brothers, a duo that can make an empty room seem like the maw of hell using little more than dust motes and silence. Imagine what they can do with the whole house full of empty rooms they have to work with here.
In a short black-and-white prologue, as stark as it is succinct, we learn why all those rooms are empty. Something very, very bad happened to the two women and little boy who lived there. That something hunted them down and dragged them off kicking and screaming to an unpleasant demise. Fast forward to the present, and to somewhat more in the way of color, and we have a family looking for a new start and a second chance by farming sunflowers, a piquant juxtaposition for the dark doings to come. Unfortunately for them, papa Roy (Dylan McDermott) has chosen the scene of the crime. In tow are mom, Denise (Penelope Anne Miller), sulky teen daughter Jess (Kristen Stewart) and silent toddler Ben. There are varying degrees of enthusiasm for this move from Chicago to the rural climes of North Dakota, and Jess is at the low end of that scale. She is a troubled kid with mother issues and a past that includes a suspended driver’s license and a killer way with a basketball. As with the supernatural busting to get loose on them in the house, the reasons for the family’s move unfold at a deliberate, effective pace. A seemingly casual comment about Ben’s safety seat, the way said Ben stares with rapt attention at something on the ceiling that no one else can see. The underlying tensions that no one wants to talk about building in tandem with the preternatural manifestations, the youngest being the first and most affected. Mom is worrying about a mildewy stain that keeps appearing on her bedroom wall. Roy isn’t connecting with anyone except the hired hand (John Corbett) who happens along at a timely moment. Jess is feeling alienated, which is only a little better than when she starts seeing awful things in the basement and the barn. And no one is feeling each other’s pain until it’s too late.
So far, so good. The Pangs aren’t afraid of exploring and exploiting the creepy side of silence, and they have at it with long sequences where someone waits terrified with almost unbearable tension and then deliver a payoff that is as quick as it is jolting. Jess walking down a hall with Ben in her arms knowing with every fiber of her being that something awful is lurking just behind her, something that Ben is pointing to insistently, something that she can’t bear to see and can’t bear not to see. So unnerving is this set-up, that when all hell does break loose, it’s not just electrifying, it’s an odd sort of relief that sets the audience off kilter and sets it up for the lull between the havocs to follow and then the havocs themselves. This is not a film where much is demanded of its cast, and they seem to be okay with that, hitting their marks and furrowing their brows on cue. The twins playing Ben, though, though, are remarkable for their solemnity and for their ability to point often and with a daft sort of conviction that belies their tender years.
Alas, once THE MESSENGERS reaches the inevitable rock-em, sock-em portion of the festivities, the subtlety that worked on several levels with a disarming simplicity earlier on falls away and it all devolves into a stale sort of conventionality that undercuts what has come before. Similarly, the running motif of crows run amok has too much of Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS about it to stand on its own, even in the Pang’s capable hands. Then again, any script that dared use that motif was setting itself up for a fall, and that’s exactly what it got.