White Noise

In Poltergeist, mischievous spirits talked to Heather O’Rourke from the staticky ether of a TV screen; then they sucked her into the TV. White Noise reiterates that theme at length, only without sucking anyone into electrical appliances; its sucking is mostly limited to the script. The movie presents its subject — Electronic Voice Phenomena, wherein people convince themselves they’re hearing the dead speaking through tape recordings or televisions — as if it were a bold, untapped mine of horror, though researchers have written reams of text about it, and William Peter Blatty devoted a section of his novel Legion to it. Perhaps the script had been rattling its chains in Universal’s attic for years before someone noticed that ghost movies are on a hot streak.

It’s good to see Michael Keaton on the big screen again (he’s been plying his trade in cable films or direct-to-video items), though I wish his comeback allowed him a shred of the humor that first endeared him to us. White Noise is the sort of time-waster he could, and perhaps did, enact in his sleep. Keaton plays a recently bereaved husband whose wife, a best-selling author, took off one night to hang out with a friend and never came home. For about five minutes, the movie does tap into that moment we’ve all had when a loved one is very late and getting later, the frustration and mounting fear. Before his wife’s body is even discovered, though, Keaton is visited by a mysterious guy (Ian McNeice) who claims to be getting messages from her.

Is the movie interested in exploring the grief and hopeful mania of a man trying to capture bits of his wife’s presence through dimly-heard voices in a sea of static? Not really. Keaton holes up in his gleaming white apartment with a bunch of TVs and cutting-edge recording software, and if anyone at his work or in his family (such as his first wife or his young son) suspects he’s gone off the deep end, we don’t hear about it. The movie is more concerned with the time-honored Dangers of Meddling with the Supernatural, spelled out for us by a blind psychic who senses what Keaton’s up to and flips out.

Is the movie scary? Only if this is your first scary movie. There are the expected seat-jumpers — the Looming Figure Passing Quickly in Front of the Camera, Unnoticed by the Hero (every director who uses this should send a check to John Carpenter); the Sudden Loud Sound, which catches the audience off-guard because everyone’s kind of leaning forward listening closely to the static; the Freaky Shadowy Things, which here seem to be three guys on the Other Side who enjoy messing with people. A lot of the suspense boils down to Michael Keaton squinting at TV static until some horrid face emerges — it’s like those joke websites that trick you into getting up close to the monitor until a shrieking face comes up. None of this is truly creepy, the way it was in Blatty’s Legion, where we read about spirits saying cryptic, bothersome things like “Here one waits” or “You don’t know what you’re doing.”

Eventually the plot collapses into contrivance — everyone who’s dabbled in EVP is connected, you see, each person helping to open the door protecting us from Those Who Would Cause Mayhem. Events force Keaton to become a proactive seer, rushing to the scene of some mishap or crime, like Bruce Willis in Unbreakable. The film isn’t badly put together; the director, Geoffrey Sax, has done some decent things for British television, such as Tipping the Velvet and a modern-dress Othello, both in 2002. Whether it was otherworldly spirits on a monitor or just the need for a fast paycheck that compelled him to take on a routine ghost thriller is a mystery far more intriguing than anything in the movie.

Explore posts in the same categories: horror, science fiction

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