I'll tell you what, a body could get used to not blogging.

The auteur-theorist in me wants for the director of a film to always, always be responsible for the final product, and that is what makes The Messengers doubly frustrating: it's a brilliantly-directed horror movie in which nearly everything that isn't the direction or cinematography - the acting, the editing, the sound design, the writing and the score - work in hellish symphony to ruin the first American horror film in I don't know how many years with actual, real-live scary moments.

Not that I want to accuse the Pang brothers, Danny and Oxide (Oxide Pang! Isn't that the best name in the history of ever?) of being geniuses, though I've heard fair things about their debut, The Eye. There is not a single moment or image in The Messengers that isn't mostly derivative: menacing flocks of crows from The Birds, a menacing house from The Amityville Horror, menacing blue humanoids that skitter around and have deformed faces from a whole lot of places. It's just that by and large these elements are carried off with a fair amount of success: there is for example one moment when a menacing blue humanoid stares at the heroine for several seconds without being scary and attack-y. This sounds like very little, but in a world of shock cuts and ADD camera movement, a horror film that simply rests on a creepy image and lets the audience absorb it is rare and precious. Sort of.

At every point, the film works very hard to sabotage itself, and while it's never as bad as a really bad horror picture, it's never as good as it clearly should be. Eventually, I'm going to have to recap the plot, just so we're all on the same page: the Solomon family - dad Roy (Dylan McDermott), mom Denise (Penelope Ann Miller), teenage daughter Jess (Kristen Stewart) and toddler Ben (Evan and Theodore Turner) - move from Chicago and an undisclosed traumatic past to a sunflower farm in the middle of North Dakota, Canada. What they don't know but we do, thanks to a black-and-white opening scene that has (as God is my witness) some actual interesting chiaroscuro lighting effects, is that this farmhouse is haunted! by something evil! that killed the old family that lived there!

It takes them precious little time to figure that out, though, starting with Ben, who points at things with a curious little sense of awe. The family can't see, but we can, and it's a fine collection of moments that ought to work really well, but don't: in one highly characteristic moment, the boy watches Denise making her bed, and as she fluffs the sheets we can see bloody legs standing on the mattress, vanishing as the sheet drifts down. That should be a skin-crawling moment, and it's shot with a sort of careless detachment that's far scarier than any sort of editorial WOW moment, and it's completely wrecked by composer Joseph LoDuca, who has elected to point out that this is a scary moment by causing every single instrument in the orchestra to play the same minor chord as loud as possible.

Ah, Joe LoDuca...a veteran of The Evil Dead and several other projects for producer Sam Raimi (whose name has been drug through some real crap lately), you'd think and hope he would know what he was doing by now, but his score for The Messengers is a schizophrenic mess. In the opening credits, he sounds like a poor man's Danny Elfman, and he'll return to that mode throughout; but that's when he hasn't elected to score a sunflower-planting montage to country fiddles, or use blaring strings and timpanis any time there is darkness onscreen. Typically, I don't think much about film music, and 9 times of 10 that I do it's because the music is awful, and let's just say that I was thinking a lot about the music here. The whole soundscape, really, which is just loud and clangy and shrill. If the only point is to make the audience jump, it's effective at that. Getting hit in the face with a chair is also effective, and similarly inelegant.

By starting in on the techie stuff, I don't mean to imply that it's not a shockingly ill-written film (it is). I don't mean that it doesn't have an original thought in its head (it doesn't); if The Descent proved anything last summer, it's that a horror film doesn't need all sorts of tarted-up originality to be something like a masterpiece. The Messengers fails in every other way, too: the characters are paper cut-outs and the dialogue is atrocious. I'd be hard pressed to say whether the lines or the actors delivering them were worse; the cast here (also including John Corbett as the handyman with A Secret and William B. "Cigarette Smoking Man" Davis as a plot contrivance) cost a decent penny for a film of this type and scale, yet the cast here is also full of bad actors. I will however give the filmmakers all of the praise in the world for casting a sixteen-year-old as a sixteen-year-old, even if Stewart isn't very charismatic or interesting.

Actually, the bare bones of the story is just about the only part of the screenplay that doesn't suck on stilts, clichés and all, and it too has been tampered with and ruined. I don't know if it's the direction, or the editing, or the tweaking to get the film down to 90 minutes and/or a "PG-13," or just the writers, but the pacing is really whacked-out. Any halfway attentive fan of scary movies can tell you that the key to making a really good one is to ratchet up the tension as you go along, but The Messengers goes in bursts and starts: the most agonizing moment of pure creepiness comes just over one-half of the way in, the big setpiece comes just under one-half of the way in, and the last 20 minutes are given over to the wholly un-paranormal threat of the Real Killer of the dead family (which is a "spoiler" if you have never encountered a narrative work before, or don't put any thought into decoding the title of this film).

For all the ways The Messengers fails, though, I think there's a swell horror movie still to come out of the Oxide brothers. They're just too damn good at the creeps for there not to be. And bad or not, this movie had two moments that were actually enough to get me to think about covering my eyes. For a Hollywood studio film, that's a victory indeed.

4/10