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On Writing
by Stephen King


. "White Noise"

"FearDotCom" meets "The Sixth Sense" in this horror flick based on visual images on a display monitor and contact with the dead. Its classy level of production enhance an attempt to probe the outer limits of plausibility it's stretched beyond hope for a successful horrific experience. The miasmic medium for dead ones to contact us, lovely as the idea might be, isn't made credible by suggesting it's the signal oblivion between station frequencies.

The story centers around Jonathan Rivers (Michael Keaton), a successful architect with his own firm, and his wife Anna (Chandra West), a best selling author who has just approved the jacket cover for her latest novel and informed Jonathan that she's pregnant. The nature of the marriage is indicated by the great pleasure with which he takes the news. With son Mike (Nicholas Elia), this is clearly a deeply loving family. That's important to know because of what's about to happen.

When Anna goes out for the day, she never comes back. After sleepless nights and frantic days worrying about her fate, Jonathan is shocked when her body is discovered downstream of where her car was found. The story makes the headlines and, just before the funeral, Jonathan notices a man watching him from a car parked outside his house. When he spots the same man outside his firm, he confronts him.

Raymond Price (Ian McNeice) doesn't turn out to be a P.I. on his tail. Instead, ever since being contacted by his own dead wife, he's been a devotee of helping people make contact with the objects of their losses. He can help Jonathan, who immediately rejects the notion, but when he finally looks him up, Price gives him the full tour of his gadget filled chambers. He explains his strange art as "EVP," a study of Electronic Voice Phenomenon of which he's the chief and likely the only practitioner. To illustrate, he shows how voices and images materialize and are recorded on his monitors.

Shreds of phrases, distant and eerie, convince Jonathan of their legitimacy, and he's hooked into cancelling all business appointments in order to pursue further contact with Anna's dead spirit, a journey that keeps his and our time engaged but ultimately goes nowhere except to introduce some interesting people along the way. Fascinating Deborah Kara Unger ("A Love Song for Bobby Long," "Stander") as Price's most recent client Sarah Tate, for one.

A persistent problem with many a horror film is that the concept that gets a writer started on it doesn't translate into anything that can be brought to a resolution consistent with its introduction. Rules governing the supernatural framework are ignored in order to escalate the dramatic arc, which usually dissipates into a last-minute contrivance that reveals the talent limitation of the writer rather than the destructibility of the synthetically formulated creature or monster. Stephen King does it over and over again.

Director Geoffrey Sax with writer Niall Johnson appear to be trying not to sell out their essential vision but are hardly able to make much sense of it or build it into a rational experience in the realm of horror. What's worse is that Keaton's extended pursuit at the array of display screens is a test of anyone's attention span.

Suggestible as the possibililities within the white noise ether might be, and as seriously as some folks might be taking it as a viable phenomenon, this use of it is never made adequately convincing as a threat. It remains a low tech effect and a gimmick that fails to grip the imagination. Besides, why would spirits inhabit or be detectable in electronic space? If they are, how can they so well direct their messages at their particular survivor who happens to be tuned in? Maybe the folks at Intel or Microsoft can be consulted on the technology the spirits are using.

Too bad, because the acting is good and all tech credits are pro. Keaton, in a non-comedic non-satiric role is steady and engaging as he soldiers on with passion for an assignment that would strain any actor's arsenal of expression. Excellent as a dramatic actor, I would suggest Keaton is leaving the comedy to the writer and director's "phenomenon." Claude Foisy's score enhances suspenseful moments inventively while Chris Seager's cinematography sets up mysterious mood in the shadowy illumination of TV and computer screens.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  




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Michael Keaton and Ian McNeice
A phenomenon whiz and his disciple.
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