Director : Geoffrey Sax
Screenplay : Niall Johnson
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Michael Keaton (Jonathan Rivers), Chandra West (Anna Rivers), Deborah Kara Unger (Sarah Tate), Ian McNeice (Raymond Price), Sarah Strange (Jane), Nicholas Elia (Mike Rivers), Mike Dopud (Detective Smits)
There is a point in White Noise when Michael Keaton's character, Jonathan Rivers, a recent widower who has been trying to reach his deceased wife through the static on a television set, leans his head up against the TV screen. He has just heard her voice and then lost it, and the piano music that has been tapping away on the soundtrack slowly fades away. And at this point you know--you just know--that something is going to suddenly appear on the screen and a crash of music is going to explode on the soundtrack. And, sure enough, it does.
That is one of the primary problems with what I call the PG-13ization of horror movies, which has been going on for some time, starting full throttle after the blockbuster success of The Sixth Sense (1999). It's a product of trying to take an inherently subversive genre and make it palatable to mass audiences. Some of these PG-13 horror films are done better than others, but they all rely on a repetition of similar set-ups in which the main goal is to make you jump in your seat. The Grudge, released a few months ago, is a perfect example, although it is one I admired if only for the sheer technical bravura displayed by director Takashi Shimizu.
In and of itself, a goose-pimply scare is perfectly fine; in fact, a good horror movie should make you jump a bit. However, it seems like a lot of horror movies these days do only that; they're comprised of cumbersomely set up "boo" moments that evaporate as soon as they're over, whereas truly great horror films generate and sustain a sense of dread that you can't quite shake off. Bereft of the kind of incisive social critique that characterized horror films of the 1970s and the startling doses of graphic gore that made many horror films of the 1980s so potent, these PG-13ized horror movies of today are like theme park rides that you forget as soon as you leave the theater.
With such ideological and visual emptiness to fill, a lot of today's horror movies are relying instead on mystery and suspense to give them weight. When done well, as in The Sixth Sense, such horror movies combine the best of both genres. Unfortunately, most of them end up making a mess of it, trying to cram in too much information and too many conflicting plot points, which is the case with White Noise. Screenwriter Niall Johnson has hit on an interesting concept--the notion of being able to use static frequencies on modern electronics to pick up signals from the deceased, a practice known as Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP)--but it quickly gets buried in a narrative avalanche of mystery and intrigue that doesn't come even close to adding up in the end.
One might imagine that, had White Noise been made in the 1970s, it would have focused more on Jonathan and his obsession with reaching his deceased wife. There is so much room for psychological horror here, with Jonathan teetering between rationality and insanity as he devotes hours upon hours of his time staring at TV screens of flickering white noise, hoping desperately for some kind of connection. Such scenes are present in the film, but they're glossed over and nothing is really made of them. Throughout, Jonathan remains a firmly grounded rational being with never a hint of any genuine interior damage. When he begins to play the role of hero/savior after coming to believe that his wife is showing him images future events, it opens up all kinds of possibilities of turning that savior complex into something unsettling, yet the film never even hints in that direction. Rather, Jonathan is just a good man trying to save lives.
Director Geoffrey Sax, making his feature-film debut after years of directing television shows and made-for-TV movies in England, has clearly studied up on the aesthetics of modern horror films, and he plies us with canted angles, shallow focus, and plenty of compositions that leave a nerve-wracking amount of empty space around characters just begging to be invaded by an evil force. The film's evil comes in the form of a never-explained trio of inky-black ghost figures that Jonathan apparently lets into the world while attempting to contact his wife, and right up until the overdone climax, they are effectively creepy in the way they hang back in the corner of the frame and pass by at unexpected moments.
Yet, beyond that, there is precious little horror in the film. Michael Keaton, who has been seen only sporadically on-screen in the last five years, makes for a credible protagonist, but he's too grounded and calm. He also has no chemistry with Deborah Kara Unger as a woman who has also contacted a deceased loved one through the static of a television. The flatness of their relationship reflects the flatness of the film itself. If you want to see TV static used to better effect in a horror film, go to the video store and rent Poltergeist (1982).
Copyright © 2005 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © 2004 Universal Pictures