Suffer the Children

The Messengers

Kristen Stewart, Penelope Miller, and Dylan McDermott star in a film written by Mark Wheaton and directed by the Pang Brothers.

Reviewed by D.J. Palladino

Horror connoisseurship is at a weird juncture right now. The dominant U.S. studios and distributors have betrayed the fans by insisting on PG-13 ratings to get teens into the theaters, thereby defanging everything. Who knows if vertiginously terrifying films can be made in America, the land that gave us The Exorcist and Lady in White? On the other hand, the emerging new masters of the form, like Takashi Miike, Hideo Nakata, and our own Eli Roth work in an irrational vein, which is not readily identified by big fans as classic horror.

The new horror films hitting the big screen don’t seem to make sense — which is, when you think of it, an odd thing to demand from films about zombies, ghosts, and mass murderers. These new guys owe more to moody irrationalists like Dario Argento (Suspiria) than they do to slasher maestros like Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), and so people who should like the new stuff are sometimes baffled. “That sucked,” said one kid loudly exiting this fine film.

Yes, I say The Messengers is good horror. Who can resist a film by Hong Kong twins named Danny and Oxide Pang? Sure they borrowed: pecking crows, creepy farm houses, and stuff oozing from the ground. Yet Messengers also defiles sunshine-y innocence, too. The haunted children add a little Henry James nursery creepiness. The optimistic boomer parents come to this bad, bad house to raise sunflowers, fleeing the city. It’s up to the kids to deliver dark messages to their foolish hippie parents. That it plays out as therapy is even better.

On the other hand, the story is loosely knit. We get flashes of imagery but never understand who that creepy salesman is who keeps showing up or why the baby points happily at a body hanging from the rafters and the sister keeps returning despite serious trauma. But The Messengers refuses to square its own mysteries, and because the Brothers Pang are poets and not scientists, even after seeing it, you might never guess if the ghosts are going to help out on the farm or take the children down to that oozy basement again.

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