The preview for White Noise was creepy as hell. It used actual examples of E.V.P. – Electronic Voice Phenomenon, which allegedly records the voices of the dead via un-tuned radios and televisions. In the preview, a woman could be heard through a cloud of static saying “I will see you no more.” Then a gravelly voiced announcer said: “This is the voice of Ruth Baxter. It was recorded in August 2003” [Dramatic pause.] “Ruth Baxter died in 1987.” Several similar examples followed. Although I’ve never been much of a believer in this supernatural stuff, I’m pretty sure a chill ran down my spine the first time I saw this preview. How pathetic is it, then, that the coming attractions trailer is about a hundred times more eerie than the movie itself?
Michael Keaton plays Jonathan Rivers, an architect currently married to wife #2, a famous author named Anna (Chandra West). She disappears one night and is found dead about a week later. The grieving Jonathan is approached by Raymond Price (Ian McNeice), an expert in E.V.P. who claims to have received messages from Anna. At first, Jonathan thinks the guy is a kook, but when all his electronic equipment starts going crazy every night at 2:30, he decides to look into it a little more. Lo and behold, Anna is indeed sending messages from the Other Side. After a while, she even sends a little image of herself over a TV set. Suddenly Jonathan is a believer, although he initially is not certain what message his wife is trying to send him.
It doesn’t take long to figure out that Anna is trying to tell him about other women in the town who aren’t dead yet, but soon will be. You see, there’s a serial killer running around abducting and killing women. Anna was one of his victims and she wants him stopped. Only by sending this information to Jonathan from beyond the grave can she possibly stop whoever is responsible. Once the messages have been received, Jonathan then rushes off, trying to save the women’s lives before it is too late, assisted by another E.V.P. practitioner named Sara Tate (Deborah Kara Unger). This is, needless to say, not exactly the story we were expecting to see from the film’s advertisements. It is not what we want to see.
The preview for White Noise leads you to believe that the film will actually be about Electronic Voice Phenomenon. Really, it isn’t. Beyond the general definition of E.V.P., you won’t learn a thing about this process; it’s used more a gimmick than as an actual subject. I saw a report about E.V.P. one a news magazine show several years back. Whether you believe in it or not, the whole thing is kind of interesting, and some of the results are pretty hard to discount. The movie never puts much effort into showing us the ins and outs of E.V.P. though. None of the characters talk about why it happens, or how it happens, or how they discovered it. Raymond has a lot of equipment but never explains how any of it works. You sit there wishing for more detail about this pseudo-science (or anti-science, or whatever you want to call it) but the screenplay just leaves you empty-handed. There’s a very intriguing topic here, yet the film doesn’t seem to have any real interest in it.
Instead what we get are all the routine horror movie clichés. Consider, for instance, the scene were Jonathan shows up at a house to meet one of the other characters. When he arrives, the house is inexplicably dark. He knocks on the door, which slowly creaks open. From inside, he can hear the sound of a phone, off the hook with a disconnect signal pulsing through the ear piece. Gee, do you think someone’s dead inside? There’s also a group of dark shadowy figures that whoosh around behind the backs of the human characters. And, as if that weren’t enough, we get the requisite finale set in an abandoned building where water drips all around, creating ominous little ping sounds on the digital surround soundtrack. The only cliché this movie doesn’t have is a cat leaping out of a closet or cupboard.
Then there’s the matter of the ending. (Minor spoiler alert!) In movies, the killer always has to be a character we’ve already seen somewhere else in the film, and it’s generally the one character who otherwise has no function in the plot. White Noise takes that cheap idea and cheapens it even further by having the killer be someone who appeared to be nothing more than a background extra. I was reminded of Sea of Love, where the killer turned out to be the grocery delivery boy who had notched less than a minute of screen time before being unmasked as the culprit. The same kind of thing happens here. Director Geoffrey Sax even has to flash back to the killer’s brief scene because otherwise there’s no way we can possibly even recognize him!
White Noise is a total piece of crap, to be sure. It is poorly made, badly acted, and incompetently written. However, it could have worked quite nicely. The filmmakers could have gone in several promising directions with the premise. They could have made a movie like Frequency in which Jim Caviezel communicated via short-wave radio with his late father. That film used the idea of otherworldly phenomenon to explore issues related to the central father/son relationship. The resulting story was deeply touching – a powerful suggestion that those we love never really leave us. I can imagine a similar approach being taken here, where Jonathan uses E.V.P. to say all the things to his wife that he never got to say. Or, perhaps, he could use it as a tool to start coping with the loss.
If the filmmakers wanted to take a horror approach, they could have had Jonathan become obsessed with finding his wife through all the static. He could slowly become mad thinking she was there, thinking he’d found her, spending his days and months pouring endlessly over snow patterns in a TV set. It’s not hard to imagine a creepy story about a guy slowly going mad.
Or, if they wanted to be really creepy, the filmmakers could have just scrapped this moronic story altogether and used the money to make a documentary about E.V.P. If it was anything like the White Noise preview, it would definitely be good for a few heebie-jeebies.
( out of four)
White Noise is rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and language. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.
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