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‘Messengers’ plows fertile but familiar ground

At least the filmmakers steal their material from good films and add some nice Asian horror touches. By Christy Lemire
/ Source: The Associated Press

“The Messengers” wasn’t screened for critics before opening day, not because it’s bad but because it’s a horror movie, and horror movie fans don’t read reviews anyway. Duh.

What it is, however, is derivative — a cross between “The Birds” and “The Amityville Horror,” with some third-act sprinklings of “The Shining.” If you’re going to steal, you may as well choose quality source material, and Hong Kong brothers Danny and Oxide Pang have done just that in making their first English-language feature.

But working from a screenplay by Mark Wheaton, based on a story by Todd Farmer, the Pangs also have added their own Asian-terror touches. (The identical twins are responsible for, among other movies, “The Eye,” about a blind girl who receives a cornea transplant that allows her to see dead people. Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner’s production company is remaking it.)

And so the ghosts who inhabit the creepy, creaky farm house in North Dakota crawl about with that familiar staccato scamper, their faces and bodies ashen, their hair black and stringy. If you’ve seen this image once, you’ve seen it a hundred times (in movies with the word “Ring” or “Grudge” in the title). It’s still pretty unnerving.

While “The Messengers” is very au courant stylistically, it’s pure old-school horror thematically: a haunted house in the middle of nowhere, a small town with weird locals, menacing crows that swoop and peck, and lots of sharp farm equipment just lying around, waiting to be used as a weapon.

The Solomon family moves in after some unnamed trouble in Chicago, looking for a fresh start but clueless about the murders that took place in the house just a few years earlier. Dad Roy (Dylan McDermott) plans to harvest sunflowers. Mom Denise (Penelope Ann Miller) wants to spruce up the place and make it a home.

But surly teenage daughter Jess (Kristen Stewart, who played Jodie Foster’s daughter in “Panic Room”) is understandably less than thrilled about being uprooted from her friends. She’s also the inspiration behind the move for reasons we learn later.

Then there’s 3-year-old Ben (played by Evan and Theodore Turner), who has stopped speaking but is perceptive enough to recognize that something supernatural lurks within the house, and is trying to contact them. He points and stares straight ahead or at the ceiling, looking cherubic all the while, which is pretty frightening in itself.

The Pangs let the action play out slowly and simply, which is effective. Even after John Corbett shows up as a drifter looking for work on the farm, one who’s a little too trigger-happy with his rifle when the birds start hovering, the brothers still maintain a steady pace.

It isn’t until the end that things spin out of control. No one says “Gimme the bat, Wendy” or “Here’s Johnny!” But they come close.