"Sometimes, this land . . . it just gets ahold of you and won't let go"
Ghost stories have always been popular, but they're extremely common at the box office right now. Perhaps one of the things that makes them so popular is that all ghost stories are mysteries, in some way.
Most times the spirits are ticked off about how they died, and if you can figure out how it happened, you can put them to rest. This even tends to work on the malevolent ones who are killing anyone who dares to move into their home/hotel or whatever (which is another reason they're popular, you can haunt just about anything; homes, cars, et cetera. Stay
Alive is a haunted video game.) If you can figure out who the bad spook is you can take the steps to put them to rest.
So, to be effective, a ghost story has to be both scary, and also satisfy the constraints of a mystery. It has to give you the clues to solve the "what happened that was so bad to bring this person back from the dead" puzzle. Most of the haunting movies that are considered cheap, I think, fail in one of these two categories.
The Messengers manages to be a decent ghost story and a decent mystery at the same time.
The movie focuses on the Solomon family. We have dad Roy (Dylan "Denny Crane came from my show" McDermott), mom (Penelope "Kindergarten Cop" Ann Miller), and their two kids. Teen daughter Jess (Kristen "Zathura" Stewart) and toddler Ben. The other prominent characters are scary banker guy Colby (William "Cancer Man" B. Davis) and farmhand Burwell (John "Northern Exposure" Corbett).
So our family has just bought a small farm in the middle of nowhere North Dakota. Thus, they have violated my "stay out of the sticks" warning. The last family that lived on this farm just "up and moved out without telling anyone", which is yet another movie red flag. We, the audience, know that something horrible happened to them, mainly because we're given a glimpse of it in the pre-credits sequence. This sets up part of the mystery portion of our film: what happened to the last family.
The other mystery that we're presented with is finding out what happened to the Solomons that drove them to move away from Chicago and
get this farm, leaving everything they knew behind them. Roy calls the
farm the family's "last chance," and as the plot unfolds, all their secrets start to come out.
As for the other half of our ghost story equation, it starts fairly quickly. We're given several glimpses of the dead people haunting the farm. Most of the really cool ones were, of course, given away in the trailer. However, what's really interesting is that the movie plays with the "children are open to things adults aren't" theme, so Ben sees the ghosts as they move through the home, or Jess does as they terrorize her.
The movie has some decent scares, which isn't surprising considering it's another Ghost House picture, Sam Raimi's studio that brought us The Grudge flicks. The Pang brothers, who brought us the J-Horror flick The Eye, are good directors. Visually, they manage to make the house both scary and serene, and move things along at a good pace. They use only one montage, so the field can go from dirt to shoulder-high sunflowers, perfect for spooky things to run around and hide in.
There's also a great scene where the house is torn apart by the ghosts. We don't see the ghosts, we just witness their destruction of the home.
The Messengers is very well acted, which really shouldn't be a surprise with this cast. They make the Solomons very real, and bring a lot of depth to the characters. The movie also doesn't cheat with the mysteries, revealing everything in good time, in logical ways. There's nothing that is revealed that feels like they were making it up as they were going along (you hear me, Lost writers?).
Where the movie fails is that the scares are a little few and far between, the ending is a bit abrupt, and some horror fans might not be satisfied with how understated the dramatic scenes are played. This movie could easily have been twisted into one of those heartfelt family drama movies. Thank goodness we have the dead people around to keep that from happening.
Jess also makes a few of the standard stupid horror teen mistakes. The biggest, to me, was after she's nearly dragged into the creepy basement by the ghosts, presumably to make her one as well, the next day she goes down there on her own to look around. See, if it was me, after six sets of undead hands try and pull me somewhere, there's no way I'm going anywhere near that place again of my own volition.
The Messengers is a serviceable, if quiet, ghost story. It has solid acting, good characters and creepy, effective ghosts. It doesn't have any twists or turns that will set the genre on its ear, like Sixth Sense or The Others did, but it does everything you expect from a haunted house flick. And it's gonna make me think twice about where my sunflower seeds are grown from now on.