In the past, when a studio released a film without screening it for the critics, it was a clear sign that the movie sucked and everyone knew it. Desperate to earn back some of their investment, producers hoped critical silence would clear the way for a strong opening weekend.

Today, the reasons studios deny screenings is less clear. Perfectly adequate, though hardly exceptional, films are stealthily dropped into theaters then quickly disappear from the multiplex.

Last year's Silent Hill — a visually arresting but highly flawed horror film — skipped the crits, betting fans of the video game would turn up in droves on opening weekend. The strategy paid off and its box office started strong. Belated reviews were lukewarm but hardly damning; which prompts the question: What were the studios afraid of? Unless the film was a total calamity (see House of The Dead), fanboys and horror buffs were going to show up regardless of what some pencil-necked reviewer wrote.

Which brings us to The Messengers, a film without a built-in audience of gamers that could probably benefit from a few good notices. Produced by Sam Raimi's Ghost House production studio, it's a competent and occasionally eerie spookshow that neither inspires nor offends.

Directed by the Pang brothers (Hong Kong twins who gained notice for The Eye) this last gasp at Asian-inspired horror has plenty of gotcha moments and twitchy pale-skinned ghosts crawling across the ceiling, but never rises above the derivative.

A family of Chicagoans moves to North Dakota to start a sunflower farm. Shock of shocks, the sinister old house they've moved into hides a violent past. Haunted by disturbed and disturbing spirits, the troubled teen daughter slowly uncovers the farm's dark secrets while her parents fret about her inability to adjust.

Carefully unspooling the suspense, the first half of The Messengers is creepy and stylish. The Pangs fill the screen with their gothic view of the American heartland, slathering the frame with ominous shadows and isolated landscapes. Dark figures scurry past the camera and pasty apparitions cling to the wall. If the supernatural jolts don't hit with the intended force it's probably because the j-horror shtick has worn thin as of late. As talented as the brothers are, they've come to the creepshow party a bit late, upstaged by two Ring movies and two Grudge films.

Worse, whatever promise the Pangs brought to the project is undone by the tired mechanics of Mark Wheaton's script. Lifeless dialogue and incoherent plotting frequently undermine the brothers' carefully constructed mood. Borrowing shamelessly from The Shining, The Amityville Horror, and even The Birds, Wheaton's story is a predictable stew of clichéd ghosts, tepid family drama and pitchfork murders. The story also suffers from a need to explain things. Apparently, malevolent spirits no longer screw with you just because they can. Now they have reasons, traumas that need closure. Where's the fun in that?

The cast of television stalwarts (Dylan McDermott, John Corbett) and b-movie starlets (Penelope Ann Miller) punch the clock and deliver serviceable performances. Only Kristen Stewart as daughter Jess takes things seriously enough to sell the scares.

If you stumbled across The Messengers one night on Encore you might stick around long enough to see where things were going. Or not.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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