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Brothers use general delivery for ghost story

The Pang brothers, Danny and Oxide, arrive on American screens with high and horrific expectations, trailing a bloody body of Hong Kong ghost stories (like 2002's "The Eye") that the twins have written and directed. A New York Times magazine profile last summer bumped the hype up a notch.

That all this has resulted in "The Messengers," a stylish but almost completely generic thriller, is as anticlimactic as the movie itself. It's good for scaring 14-year-old girls and impressing budding cinematographers, and that, friends, is it.

The Solomon family has moved from the big city to the creepy country as the film opens: Dad (Dylan McDermott) has dreams of being a sunflower farmer -- he's eyeing the lucrative Major League Baseball market, I guess -- while uptight mom (Penelope Ann Miller) irons compulsively and tries to smile without pulling a muscle. Teenage daughter Jess (Kristen Stewart) glowers like a junior league Avril Lavigne: no one understands her because she speaks in fluent pout. There's a toddler, too, named Benny (Evan Turner), who's a magnet for rotting spirits.

The farmhouse is vintage Texas Chainsaw, the crows in full murder, creepy gray things are skittering in the basement. The scariest thing here, though, has to be John Corbett ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding"), with long hair and a skeevy fu manchu, as a stranger who shows up at the house wielding a shotgun. Naturally, the dad immediately hires him on as a farmhand.

The Pangs are more into atmosphere and imagery than in plot logic, and that's fine; if only their bag of tricks weren't so shallow. They're big on "boo" scenes and playing with focal planes: something icky is always passing by in the foreground or background of a shot as the soundtrack gooses you with sonic whooshes.

It's a wholly mechanical approach to suspense, and after a while you sit there in the dark and tick off the other movies that have been scavenged for spare parts: "The Amityville Horror," "The Shining," "The Birds," "The Others," "The Sixth Sense," even a little bit of "Close Encounters" whenever baby Benny wanders down a hall toward a shrieking door.

Stewart -- Jodie Foster's daughter in "Panic Room" -- is a good actress who's been directed to give a binary performance: she toggles between sullen and scared. The grown-ups fare worse: They speak . . . very . . . slowly . . . as if to pad the running time out. This may in fact be the most ridiculous performance John Corbett has ever given.

The visuals stick with you -- a pair of mottled ghost-legs that appear under a sheet the mother is shaking out, for instance -- and somewhere in "The Messengers" is a neat little metaphor about all the things a teenager sees and feels that no one wants to hear about. For subtext to work, though, you have to have some text on top of it. Instead, "The Messengers" is textbook, and the course it's teaching is HSL: Horror as a Second Language.

Ty Burr can be reached at For more on movies, go to