Dirs: Oxide and Danny Pang. US. 2007. 91mins.
The studio debut of the gifted horror specialists Oxide and Danny Pang (The Eye , Bangkok Dangerous), The Messengers is a visually assured though dramatically flat ghost story about an endangered American family unaware their just purchased North Dakota farmhouse harbors a tragic secret.

The Pangs are masters of confined space, and they conjure some particularly unsettling, jolting examples of entrapment and collapse that reaches its sharpest expression inside the home's mysterious, dank cellar. The film-makers tap into a dark, almost forbidding sense of nightmare and violation through the eerie camera movement and rapid cutting.

Were it a silent film, The Messengers would be a much better film, the movie's effectiveness a natural extension of how strong the Pangs are with mood, atmosphere and imagery. Ultimately they are defeated by a ludicrous script, a first produced work by Mark Wheaton, from a story by Todd Farmer that remains vitally lacking in originality, characterization and dramatic incident to yield the necessary surprise and danger.

Opening over Super Bowl weekend without press screenings, a lacklust re title and little advance marketing, the PG-13 movie released by Sony genre division Screen Gems performed surprisingly well. It earned an expected $14.5m to capture the top spot in North American box office. Produced by Sam Raimi, whose Evil Dead series is one of the film's references, The Messengers certainly proves the enduring popularity of horror titles for young moviegoers.

It should finish at around $50m in the US, setting up strong release for DVD and cable. Internationally, the title is more limited given the absence of widely recognizable names. Asian territories are more encouraging, particularly in the Pangs' native Hong Kong and their Bangkok, their operational base.

The black and white shot prologue of a young family terrorized by a malevolent force establishes the movie's brutally off-centre tone. In the sun drawn imagery of David Geddes's cinematography, the primary story is similarly predicated on fear and uncertainty.

Playing off the tormented, damaged instability of the movie's heroine, 16-year-old Jess (Stewart), the Pangs draw on visual archetypes to sustain their mood of creepy rupture. Like Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds , a harbinger of doom is made explicit by the nasty group of black ravens that constantly encircle the sunflower field that lines the dilapidated farmhouse the Solomon family has taken possession of.

It is a damaged unit, the father (McDermott) returning to his roots as a reinvigorated start following trouble the family experienced in Chicago. His wife (Miller) is sullen and constantly distracted around their attractive daughter, Jess. Their young son (played by the Turner twins) has not spoken since an undisclosed incident. A mysterious farmhand (Corbett) who arrives for the harvest completes the tense family portrait.

Like Kubrick's adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining , the boy has a profound connection to the pain visited on the young victims who formerly live there. He sees constant evidence of their ghosts, the scaly, almost reptilian skin of the young boy or the violated daughter.

In the opening thirty minutes, the Pangs try hard to elevate very familiar material. The storytelling lacks any punch or verve, the muffled, unpersuasive dialogue sounding as though it were translated from the Cantonese. Movies like The Sixth Sense or The Others mandate a last-act revelation. The tyranny of plot, the characters' back story, the unwieldy exposition, flatten the narrative line, and choke off the rigor and suspense.

Stewart is a poised, expressive young actress, and the Pangs work hard to shape the action around her tortured consciousness. The part and the narrative are clogged down, drained of interest or excitement. Technically, the Pangs work wonders despite the obvious budget limitations. Joseph LoDuca's music has undertones of malice. It has some interesting digital effects, especially the black crows.

From the ridiculously uncomplicated, conventional happy ending to the lack of incidental pleasures, the release version The Messengers feels something arrived at rather than shaped and sharply constructed.

Production companies/backers
Scarecrow Productions Inc.
Bluestar Entertainment
Ghost House Pictures

US distribution
Screen Gems

Sam Raimi
William Sherak
Jason Shuman
Robert G Tapert

Executive producers
Joseph Drake
Nathan Kahane

Mark Wheaton
From a story by Todd Farmer

David Geddes

Production design
Alicia Keywan

John Axelrad
Armen Minasian
Oxide Pang
Danny Pang

Joseph LoDuca

Main cast
Kristen Stewart
Dylan McDermott
Penelope Ann Miller
John Corbett
Evan Turner
Theodore Turner
Dusty Milligan