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Living in scary times

In `The Messengers,' you never know what might jump onto the screen. Alas, an inspired plot never appears.

February 03, 2007|Sam Adams | Special to The Times

Once, city folk went to small towns to get away from it all, but these days they seem to find trouble when they turn off the interstate. There's horror in the heartland.

The Solomon family -- mom (Penelope Ann Miller), dad (Dylan McDermott), 16-year-old Jess (Kristen Stewart) and 3-year-old Ben (Evan and Theodore Turner) -- move to rural North Dakota in search of peace of mind. Although the field beside their weather-beaten farmhouse is soon bursting with sunflowers, the house itself is ruled by shadows. Malevolent ravens pound the windowpanes. Bloodless, blue-veined legs appear in the space between a bed and a falling sheet. Rotting corpses seep through the wallpaper like a stubborn stain and scuttle across the ceilings with a sound like cracking shellfish.

Directed by the Thai brothers Danny and Oxide Pang ("The Eye"), "The Messengers" is a slow-burn creeper in which scenes of normality exist only to be disrupted by the ever-encroaching presence of a supernatural intruder. Every spare inch at the edge of the frame is energized by the possibility that some walking nightmare might lurch into it at any moment.

In the Asian tradition -- which the Pangs were a part of until recently -- horror has evolved into an abstract art, which helps explain why "The Messengers" is at once ruthlessly efficient and shamelessly distended. Expository scenes are abruptly cut short once the relevant information has been disclosed. But a near-miss encounter in which one of the house's skittering ghoulies creeps up on Jess in a dimly lighted hallway is stretched almost to the point of parody (and surely, for some viewers, beyond), a relentless exercise in pure tension created mainly with off-kilter framing and suggestive, just-out-of-focus blurs.

"The Messengers" springs from the idea that children can see things that grown-ups ignore. First Ben, with his dark, bottomless eyes, and then his troubled older sister are victimized, perhaps unintentionally, by the house's restless spirits. But mom and dad cling to their "American Gothic" dreams even as their daughter ends up in the emergency room with scratch marks on her throat.

The movie would be more effective if it settled earlier and more decisively on Jess' point of view, since she is the one with the most to lose by her parents' disbelief. The objective view gives the audience too much room to unravel its schematic plot, which is far less inspired than its creepy visuals.

"The Messengers." MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material, disturbing violence and terror. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. In general release.

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