More often than not the horror genre seems to get split right down the center when it comes to success or failure. Whether it is a monster, serial killer, slasher or ghost picture, it seems the makers of their particular attempt either get it right, or they don't. It is a very rare occurrence when one sits in the middle. For the Pang Brother's American directorial debut: The Messengers, that rare occurrence has indeed occurred...

The story revolves around 15 year-old Jesse (Panic Room's Kristen Stewart) and her family moving to a run down sunflower farm for a fresh start. Upon arriving, this dysfunctional bunch begin to work on their interpersonal demons as our heroine and her baby brother slowly begin to realise they are not alone.

The script is a good one, giving us real characters instead of one-note wonders. It places a certain reality throughout that helps keep our family in a haunted location, without wanting to scream at the screen to just get out of there. The dialogue is natural, and compliments the subtlety the script is trying for, as does the pacing for the most part.

The performances are first rate from a who's who of a cast. Penelope Anne Miller, Dylan McDermott, John Corbett, and for X-files fans: The Cigarette Smoking Man himself William B. Davis, all turn in natural, engaging characters. But it is Kristen Stewart that holds the film together with a presence and naturalistic performance that defies her 17 years.

The Pangs' direction is also a blessing for the film. Their style (claimed heavily in the featurettes to be new and pioneering NO, people) takes heavily from the books of Kubrick and Hitchcock, with unconventional and effective framing; excellent use of shadow and contrast; a real panache for milking suspense to its last drop; and an obvious Asian horror sensibility that is heavily focused on visuals (They are the creators of The Eye trilogy, after all).

Under the lead of very visual directors, the effects in The Messengers are excellent. From things no one would suspect as effects to the ghostly phenomena, the melding of these elements are seamless, and a credit to a film made on just 15 million dollars.

So begs the question: With a good script, directors, actors, effects, where does this film go wrong? Well first is its target audience. For whatever reason, the powers behind this film made it to a PG-13 standard, instantly neutering it. The purpose of this film is to instil fear, and this rating is an inappropriate plateau to stay on when you want to instil fear. So many moments could have been so much more, had the filmmakers' hands been untied.

Second are the ghosts themselves. They are overdone - just another variation on the pale, scary people who walk/move weird in all American adaptations of Asian horror (Note to Hollywood: its been done, and well... please move on.) The ghosts are far more effective in this film when they are almost concealed in shadow, or slightly out of focus (when they were it complimented the filmmakers' wish to be subtle far more effectively than rehashing something that's quickly become old). The characterization of these ghosts is also sadly lacking - unlike the rest of the characters - and considering their purpose in this story, this is a considerable oversight.

Thirdly is the main set: the house itself. In a film that is trying for understatement, this focal point is presented with all the subtlety of a donkey show. While one can appreciate the need for it to look run down/foreboding, this house would be more effective in the next Addams Family movie, and is especially jarring in the midst of a lush sunflower crop. Everything about this house screams overdone, from the fake weathering to the gnarly, dead vines crawling ominously over its shell. The Pangs' direction; the actor's efforts; the story... all are undermined by this mistake.

Finally is the inconsistent score, which at some points does its job well, and in others - particularly in moments of crisis reduces to overblown theatricality that defies the subtle tone the film is attempting to set.

The haunted house sub-genre is one of the trickiest of stories to attempt, without falling into cliché. Steer too far away from the conventions of a haunted house movie, and it quickly loses cohesion. Steer too closely and the audience is one step ahead of you the whole way. The Messengers neither breaks the mould it's attempting to, nor fails in delivering some true originality and surprise. What it does prove is that getting your target audience wrong and combining a few inconsistent elements with predominantly good ones can stop a good film from being great.


DVD Details:

Special features include a decent collection of featurettes with a ‘Play all' option, and a jovial commentary with star Kristen Stewart, writer Mark Wheaton, actor Dustin Milligan, and Visual FX Supervisor Bruce Jones.

Screen formats: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1 presentation

Subtitles: English; French

Language and Sound: Closed Captioned; English: Dolby Digital 5.1; French-Canadian: Dolby Digital 5.1

Other Features: Color; interactive menus; scene access.

* Commentary -
o With actress Kristen Stewart, writer Mark Wheaton, supporting actor Dustin Milligan, and special effects man Bruce Jones.
* Featurette
o Exhuming The Messengers - section contains seven separate featurettes that total 37:50 and cover directors, script, set design, visual effects, animal wrangling, and Kristen Stewart and Johnn Corbett.

Number of discs: - 1 with Keepcase Packaging