I suppose we have M. Night Shyamalan to blame. After Bruce Willis’ success in The Sixth Sense it seems that every other middle-aged actor in Hollywood is looking to play the sullen, emotionally wounded guy who uncovers creepy supernatural forces. Richard Gere took on The Mothman Prophecies, Kevin Costner embarrassed himself in Dragonfly, and now Michael Keaton purses his lips and furrows his brow as somber architect Jonathan Rivers in White Noise.
Months after the tragic and mysterious death of his wife Anna, a beautiful, young best-selling author, Jonathan hears a haunting message on the crackling hiss of his answering machine. It’s his dead wife, trying to reach him from beyond the grave. With the assistance of ghost hunter Raymond Price (Ian McNeice), Jonathan immerses himself in the pseudoscience of EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena) and discovers that the dead can talk to us through the white noise of television and radio frequencies.
Unfortunately, along with the sentimental postcards from loved ones come the sinister ravings of malevolent spirits. As you might expect, it isn’t long before Jonathan opens the door and lets something evil cross into our world.
The concept has good scare potential. Much is made of the supernatural television transmissions, and for a little while it’s an effective plot device. There is something unsettling about ghostly images struggling against the electronic snow of household appliances. The idea of mixing technology with the supernatural allows for some spine-chilling scenarios and interesting after-movie conversations. Writer H.P. Lovecraft explored this terrain to good effect, and films such as Poltergeist, Videodrome and The Ring were all able to convincingly ratchet up their dread factor with the use of poor TV reception.
Unfortunately, screenwriter Niall Johnson doesn’t know how to exploit his idea any further than its setup, and EVP ends up becoming little more than a cheap gimmick on which to hang a muddled serial killer story.
Worse still is the threadbare character development of Jonathan Rivers. Keaton, a talented actor who’s been scarce as of late, flounders in a role that requires him to spend a lot of time fumbling with videotapes and staring at static-filled television monitors. I suspect this was one of the easiest paychecks he’s ever collected. He makes the best of this humorless and passive role, but it’s a losing proposition. Too bad the voices from beyond didn’t tell Michael to pick a better comeback movie to star in.
Director Geoffrey Sax strives mightily to emulate the style and pace of both The Ring and The Sixth Sense but only ends up reminding you how much better both those films were. Scarier as a late-night TV movie trailer, White Noise, the film, is as empty of content and ideas as its name implies.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].