The trouble isn't just that this haunted-house story, written by Mark Wheaton and directed by Hong Kong filmmakers Danny and Oxide Pang, is both formulaic and derivative. It's that it's completely free of atmosphere, the very thing that their 2002 THE EYE had in such creepy abundance.
The Solomons are looking to leave behind their troubles when they move from Chicago to North Dakota. Roy (Dylan McDermott), who's been unemployed for two years, has bought a rundown farm and intends to raise sunflowers; he and his high-strung wife Denise (Penelope Ann Miller) hope the change will straighten out teenage daughter Jess (Kristen Stewart), whose drunk-driving escapade sent baby brother Ben (Evan and Theodore Turner) to the hospital. Family tensions are at an all-time high. Denise and Roy are strapped for cash — their financial future hangs on the first harvest — and are worried sick about Ben. He's recovered physically from the accident, but hasn't spoken a word since and is now staring at things no one else can see, climbing out of bed at night and generally acting creepy, as only a fat-faced moppet with great big eyes can. So when sullen Jess — who's done nothing but sulk about moving to middle-of-nowhereville to live in a weather-beaten house only Leatherface could love — starts complaining that the house is haunted, they dismiss her as out of hand. They couldn't believe her in any event, because you can't make much of a haunted-house movie unless the hauntees hang around — ignoring bad vibes, bumps and whispers in the night, the murder of crows parked on the roof, and other blatant signs of supernatural malevolence, until, that is, they have ghosts squatting brazenly on their chests. Roy and Denise make other bad calls as well, like not being the least bit curious about what happened to the last family to own the house, and hiring drifter Burwell (John Corbett) to help work the land when he wanders onto their front lawn with a shotgun and says he'll work all summer for sandwiches and a roof over his head.
Wheaton's script borrows a little too liberally from well-known sources. No horror buff (which is to say, anyone who'd make an effort to see THE MESSENGERS) could fail to spot images and scenes taken from THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979), THE SHINING (1980) and THE BIRDS (1963), to name only the most obvious. The Pangs keep it moving and deliver the "gotcha!" moments, but a steady diet of mechanical scares is thin stuff. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh